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Mental health

22nd Aug 2021

The signs to look out for if you think someone has an eating disorder

Ellen Fitzpatrick

Eating disorders are highly complex.

They can go unnoticed by many or be glaring you straight in the face.

Like any mental health issue, eating disorders are distressing to go through and heartbreaking to watch loved ones experience.

But if a lot of the time they can go unnoticed, how can we recognise them in those we love and address the issue appropriately?

While any form of an eating disorder can show differently in any given person, there are some more common signs that are worth noting.

(*It’s also important that if you are approaching someone about this, it needs to be done with care, compassion and good intent. The person needs to feel safe and trusted.)

Changes in eating behaviours

Bodywhys, the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, says that while this may not be subject to all forms of eating disorders, when a person starts skipping meals, it could be a sign to watch out for.

Avoiding eating with family, going on fad diets or eliminating food groups can be a huge indicator that something is off. The group says: “At first, this can resemble a normal diet or lifestyle choice, but the relentless drive behind the behaviour becomes more and more obvious as the disorder progresses.

“Other means of maintaining low body weight might include fasting, excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, the use of laxatives, diuretics or appetite suppressants.”

Physical changes

When we begin to see physical changes in a person, it can be another indicator that they are calling out for help, even if they’re not so obviously reaching out.

The big changes to watch out for are weight loss, being cold all the time, bad circulation, bloating, constipation, abdominal pain, restlessness and difficulty sleeping.

Other physical signs include dry and thinning hair, dry discoloured skin, hair growth on the face and body as a way to keep warm, loss of a period and a decrease in sex drive.

Marked change in the person’s personality

Another thing to watch out for is a change in personality. “Where they start to withdraw from life and socialising, where they seem to turn inwards and develop strict routines around all they do,” says Bodywhys.

“It is this together with changes in weight and eating behaviours that often ring alarm bells.”

Low self esteem and isolation 

Low self-esteem and perfectionism is another huge sign, as well as mood swings and becoming more irritable. Feeling low or even out of control can be very common for a person with an eating disorder too, as is having difficulty solving conflict or being super sensitive to other’s feelings.

Bodywhys say: “A person with anorexia nervosa is very sensitive to how other people are feeling and they find it very challenging to cope with difficult feelings and others being upset.

Social isolation is another, with the organisation saying: “When a person has anorexia, they begin to construct their lives according to a very strict routine that is structured to ensure as little food is eaten as possible.

“In this way, socialising becomes more and more difficult because it involves coping with many variables (other people, different foods, different times). The more the person gets trapped within an eating disorder, the more likely they are to become isolated socially.”

Coping with change and seeing life in “black or white” can also be another factor to look out for, their routines become strict so any changes are hard to deal with and grey areas are hard to picture.

Depression may not always be as obvious, but something to always look out for as well as compulsive and obsessive behaviour as “this type of thinking and behaviour can be exacerbated by starvation.”

Eating disorders are complex illnesses and should be treated as such. Not everyone will harbour these symptoms or will ‘appear’ as though they are suffering. It’s important that each issue is tackled sensitively and by a person who can be trusted.

To learn more about eating disorders visit 

If you’re worried someone you love if suffering from an eating disorder, you can find resources about how to approach the subject appropriately and sensitively here.