Signs & Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and effects of eating disorders. Understanding what you or your loved one is going through can be the first step to getting help.

Understanding Anxiety

Learn about eating disorders

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can severely impact both an individual’s psychological and physical health. The harm a person does to his or her body when engaging in the destructive eating habits commonly associated with disordered eating can be life-threatening and even warrant emergency medical attention. The psychological distortions experienced by those who have an eating disorder can also be quite costly to a person’s overall wellbeing and lead to a significant decline in functioning.

The following eating disorders are among the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions that include patterns of disordered eating and detrimental psychological effects:

Anorexia nervosa: Involving the restriction of food to the point where sufferers become malnourished, anorexia nervosa is a serious eating disorder that includes an intense fear of gaining weight and dieting or fasting in response to this fear. The primary goal of those with anorexia is to achieve the smallest weight possible by whatever means they deem necessary, including excessive exercising, purging, and total avoidance of nourishment.  

Bulimia nervosa: When an individual purposely overeats and goes to drastic measures to rid his or her body of food immediately after eating, that person is likely suffering from bulimia nervosa. People who suffer from this mental illness often direct their attention on body weight and shape and engage in dangerous behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, in order to achieve a weight and shape they feel is desirable.

Binge-eating disorder: Those that consume excessive amounts of food beyond what is considered healthy are likely battling binge-eating disorder. Cornerstone to this mental health disorder is a desire to continuously eat despite the feelings of guilt and/or shame that result after a person engages in this type of behavior. Periods of overeating often occur in episodes and can lead to the onset of a number of dangerous health concerns.     

Fortunately, there are beneficial options for care that can afford sufferers of these illnesses the life-saving treatment needed to overcome such destructive thinking and behavior patterns. By implementing mental health treatment, those who grapple with eating disorders can learn new methods for coping, understand how to nourish themselves in a healthy manner, and confront the maladaptive thinking that contributes to problematic behaviors and/or compulsions. Lastly, care for an eating disorder can prolong a person’s life, of which is certainly at risk when the all-consuming symptoms of an eating disorder govern a person’s life.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for eating disorders

The following causes and risk factors are widely accepted concepts among professionals in the field of mental health and explain how and why an individual can come to develop an eating disorder:

Genetic: If a person possesses a family history in which an eating disorder is prevalent, there is a high likelihood that said individual could develop a similar disorder. Because of this linkage between the prevalence of eating disorders among individuals with similar genes, experts have deduced that genetics play a role in the development of eating disorders.  

Physical: There are a number of physical causes that can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Research has realized that when a person’s hypothalamus is not functioning properly, certain disordered eating habits can emerge, such as binge-eating. Additionally, some research has suggested that the onset of bulimia nervosa can occur if puberty occurs earlier in a person’s life. Lastly, if a person has a genetic predisposition to a mental illness, the imbalanced chemicals that are present in the brains of sufferers of other conditions can also cause an eating disorder, such as anorexia, to develop if these neurochemicals do not reach homeostasis.

Environmental: The environment and circumstances that one is exposed to can significantly influence whether or not a person will engage in harmful disordered eating habits. For example, if an individual exists in a culture that values thinness or is surrounded by people who are overly critical regarding body image or weight, there is a high likelihood that that person will develop the psychological distortions commonly associated with an eating disorder. Furthermore, those who have been victims of crime, bullying, abuse, and/or neglect are at an increased risk for the development of an eating disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Low self-esteem
  • Being in an environment / part of a culture that values thinness
  • Exposure to chronic stress / trauma / abuse/ neglect
  • Being the victim of bullying
  • Lacking healthy coping skills
  • Family history of eating disorders or other mental illnesses
  • Preexisting mental illness or illnesses

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of eating disorders

Depending on the type of eating disorder present, the signs and symptoms that would infer a person is engaging in disorder eating patterns can vary. If you feel that you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, it is crucial that treatment be sought and implemented as soon as a possible. Below are symptoms synonymous with eating disorders:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge-eating
  • Eating excessive amounts of food despite not being hungry
  • Refusing to eat
  • Constantly eating throughout the day, regardless of the time of day
  • Isolating oneself from family and friends
  • Goes to great lengths to try to please others
  • Binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting
  • Abuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas
  • Excessive exercising
  • Engaging in ritualistic eating behaviors
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Rigid dieting or fasting
  • Restricting or limiting types of food consumed
  • Denial of hunger
  • Engaging in ritualistic behaviors when preparing food
  • Frequently weighing oneself
  • Skipping meals
  • Wearing oversized clothes
  • Complaining about appearance
  • Constantly checking oneself in the mirror
  • Eating at a much more rapid pace than would be considered healthy
  • Hiding food or hiding wrappers from food
  • Eating alone as the result of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
  • Fainting spells
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Inability to fulfill roles / responsibilities

Physical symptoms:

  • Excessive energy
  • Lethargy
  • Constipation
  • Intolerance to cold / hypothermia
  • Hypotension
  • Swelling of tissues
  • Suppression of immune system
  • Low hormone levels
  • Extreme weight loss / emaciated appearance (adults with a BMI between 17.0 and 18.5)
  • Failure to meet expected weight for age (children and adolescents only)
  • Failure to achieve physical developmental milestones, e.g. age-appropriate height expectations (children and adolescents only)
  • Flat affect
  • Anemia
  • Presence of fine hair on arms and legs
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dehydration
  • Dry skin
  • Thinning hair / hair loss
  • Brittle nails
  • Decrease in bone density / broken bones
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed heart rate / irregular heart beat
  • Delayed onset of menstrual cycle / total absence of menstrual cycle (females only)
  • Broken blood vessels
  • Calluses or scars on hands or knuckles
  • Constipation due to laxative abuse
  • Dehydration
  • Internal bleeding
  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Tooth discoloration / decay
  • Mouth sores
  • Acid reflux
  • Ulcers
  • Swollen cheeks
  • Yellowing of the skin
  • Swollen glands
  • Erosion of enamel on teeth due to purging
  • Abnormal blood-sugar levels
  • Bone and joint pain
  • Having difficulty walking
  • Having difficulty engaging in various forms of physical activity
  • Possessing a BMI greater than 18.5 but less than 30 (bulimia sufferers only)
  • Irregular bowl movements
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Imbalanced fluids and/or electrolytes
  • Low potassium levels

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Perfectionistic thinking
  • Desire to control situations and environment
  • Poor impulse control
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Rigid thought processes
  • Obsessions / compulsions / preoccupation with food, weight, and/or body shape

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight
  • Low range of emotions
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Depressed mood
  • Feelings of disgust with oneself
  • Feelings of shame and guilt
  • Elevated anxiety levels
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low self-worth
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness  
  • Drastic shifts in mood


Effects of eating disorders

Because eating disorders can be extremely detrimental to a person’s overall physical health, it is not uncommon for sufferers of such illnesses to experience adverse health effects as a result. Especially for those who grapple with an eating disorder for a long period of time, the following health risks, both physical and mental, can potentially occur:

  • Development of a substance abuse problem
  • Development of an additional mental health condition
  • Worsening symptoms of an existing mental health condition
  • Infertility
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Obesity
  • Rectal prolapse
  • Kidney failure
  • Skeletal myopathy
  • Loss of muscle mass or weakened muscles
  • Osteoporosis
  • Damage to one’s digestive system
  • Ruptured stomach
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Suicidal ideation leading to attempts at suicide
  • Death

Furthermore, other areas of an individual’s life can be affected by the presence of an eating disorder. The listed consequences are examples of what can happen in a person’s personal, academic, or occupational life:

  • Decline in quantity and quality of interpersonal relationships
  • Difficulty adjusting to change
  • Social withdraw or isolation
  • Hindered academic performance
  • Decline in school attendance
  • Academic failure
  • Missing work
  • Impaired occupational functioning
  • Loss of employment
  • Financial strife
  • Inability to adhere to responsibilities and/or roles
  • Divorce

Co-Occurring Disorders

Eating disorders and co-occurring disorders

Individuals who are suffering from an eating disorder often meet diagnostic criteria for another mental health condition. This is due, in part, because the symptoms of some eating disorders can trigger the onset of a mental illness and vice versa. Moreover, eating disorder symptoms can sometime worsen due to the presence of a co-occurring disorder. The following mental illnesses are those that are commonly diagnosed alongside an eating disorder:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Adjustment disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

My severe depression had taken over my life. I’m so thankful for San Juan Capestrano Hospital for giving me the strength to start living my life again to the fullest.

– Luis S.