Top 5 Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Category: Eating Disorders
9 minute read.

Statistics provided by the National Eating Disorder Association suggest that approximately thirty million Americans have an eating disorder.

The problem with eating disorder statistics is they are often inaccurate. This is because many who suffer from symptoms do not come forward and speak to a medical provider about their illness. As a result, many people who live each day with the symptoms associated with an eating disorder never receive a diagnosis or proper treatment.

Eating disorder symptoms can vary vastly from person to person, so fitting someone into a specific eating disorder classification can be difficult. As a result, people often live with symptoms and suffer from medical and mental health complications for an extended period to obtain a diagnosis and seek treatment.

What are Eating Disorders?

The American Psychiatric Association defines eating disorders as “behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.” People with an eating disorder may fixate on food, weight, or body shape. They may worry about eating in public, eating certain foods, or how eating, in general, will affect them. It is not uncommon for someone with an eating disorder to exhibit behaviors related to food intake or control, such as restrictive eating, avoidance of certain foods, binging, purging compulsive exercise, or laxative use.

Unfortunately, while all eating disorders are very serious health conditions that affect physical and emotional health, they often do not receive the same type of attention or understanding as other illnesses. Eating disorders affect approximately 5% of the population, typically women between ages 12 and 25. However, eating disorder challenges are not limited to a particular demographic as people of all ages and gender identities have eating disorders. It is also important to remember that eating disorders often co-occur with other mental and physical health conditions, including anxiety, depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, diabetes, heart conditions, and bone and muscle disorders.

What are the Most Common Eating Disorders?

The three most common and familiar eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. There are undoubtedly other diagnosed eating disorders that are equally as detrimental to the health of the individual who suffers from them and are not to be considered less concerning or of minimal importance.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality (rate of death) rate of any mental illness. Estimates suggest that .05 and 3.7 percent of women suffer from anorexia nervosa at some point in their lifetime. Several research studies estimate that approximately one percent of female adolescents and teens have anorexia, although this number is likely higher. The average onset for anorexia nervosa is around the same age as puberty, meaning this eating disorder may provide a significant challenge to teens at a critical time in their development. A study conducted in 2003 found that individuals with anorexia nervosa are approximately 56 times more likely to commit suicide than those who do not struggle with this disorder. The same survey suggests teens (and young adult) women with anorexia are twelve times more likely to die (either from self-harm or complications associated with the illness) than other females of the same age without anorexia nervosa.

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia affects approximately two to three percent of women in their lifetime. In men, the most commonly reported statistics show bulimia affects roughly .05 percent of men. Bulimia is about nine times more likely to occur in women than men and is more common in young women and teens. The mortality rate associated with bulimia is approximately four percent. 

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is statistically the most common eating disorder in the United States and is more prevalent than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Binge eating disorder affects approximately 3.5 to 5 percent of women and 2 percent of men, and thirty to forty percent of those seeking weight loss treatments.

Top Five Eating Disorder Symptoms

When someone has an eating disorder, the symptoms they experience will vary depending on several factors. One factor is the specific eating disorder itself. Most eating disorder diagnoses have a list of symptoms that are specific to that condition. However, several symptoms are common across the majority of diagnoses. These shared symptoms you can look for if you are concerned about a loved ones eating habits or if you worry they may have an eating disorder. It is also essential to remember that not all eating disorder symptoms will present in all cases. A friend or loved one may have an eating disorder but not display any notable or visible outward signs of their illness until severe and potentially dangerous medical consequences arise. Therefore, if you are concerned, it is crucial to talk to your friend or loved one or reach out to a member of our team at The Los Angeles Outpatient Center to learn more about eating disorder symptoms and how you can help.

Distorted perception of body image

Most eating disorder diagnoses involve a distorted sense of body image. Depending on the individual, they may believe they are too “fat,” too thin, or don’t “look” right. It is not uncommon, especially for teens, to struggle with body image issues and compare themselves to others in the same age group or social circles. Consequently, they may turn to eating disorder behaviors such as calorie restrictions, excessive exercise, purging after eating, and others to control or reduce the risk of possible weight gain.

Sexual thoughts

Almost everyone, regardless of gender, has sexual thoughts. They are a natural and normal part of life. Sometimes sexual thoughts can be shocking or make you feel uncomfortable, so you try to bury them in the back of your mind to avoid thinking about them any further. Rather than fixating on them, it is best to remember they are merely a passing thought or idea and, if left alone, will resolve.

Abnormal eating patterns

Another common symptom of most eating disorders is abnormal eating patterns. Whether eating too little or too much, a common symptom of an eating disorder is unhealthy or “abnormal eating. This could come in the form of excessive calorie restrictions (as mentioned above), binge eating, eating only specific foods or omitting specific food groups, or eating items that are not necessarily “food,” as seen with an eating disorder called PICA.

Dramatic weight change

Dramatic weight changes typically accompany most eating disorders. Whether it’s excessive weight loss or weight gain, it is not uncommon to notice dramatic fluctuations in a friend or loved one’s weight if they haven’t an eating disorder. You may also see they wear baggy or ill-fitting clothing to hide weight loss or weight gain from friends or loved ones.

Excessive exercise

In addition to purging and restricting calories (or as an alternative to these practices), some individuals with eating disorders will exercise excessively to control their body weight or burn off calories they have consumed. Often, this exercise is so excessive that it is detrimental to their medical and psychological health. For some teens, particularly female teens, eating disorder behaviors such as excessive exercise and calorie restrictions can cause delayed onset of puberty and menstruation cycles.

New or worsening physical health conditions

in time, ongoing eating disorder behaviors will inevitably lead to medical problems. The list of potential illnesses associated with eating disorders is long. In some cases, long-term harmful eating behaviors can lead to medical emergencies, including cardiac arrest and death.

Treatment for Eating Disorders at The Los Angeles Outpatient Center

There are several different levels of care or treatment methods for eating disorders. Most eating disorder treatment plans involve a combination of therapy (psychotherapy), medical monitoring, nutrition education, and sometimes medications. The duration of treatment and how each intervention factors into treatment will depend on the specific disorder and your specific therapeutic needs.

Treatment providers at The Los Angeles Outpatient Center use several therapy approaches to help patients overcome eating disorders. The most common treatment models include one or a combination of the therapies noted below.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

This type of psychotherapy focuses on thoughts, behaviors, and feelings related to the eating disorder. After helping you develop healthy eating behaviors, CBT helps them learn to recognize, examine, and change unhelpful thoughts that lead to eating disorder behaviors.

Family-based therapy (FBT)

During family-based therapy sessions, family members learn about eating disorders and how they can help their loved ones restore healthy eating patterns and achieve a healthy weight until they can do it independently. This treatment can be beneficial for parents learning how to help their child with an eating disorder.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

The goal of ACT is to focus on changing your actions rather than your thoughts and feelings. During therapy, you learn to identify and examine your core values and commit to creating goals that fulfill those values. ACT also encourages you to detach from emotions and acknowledge that pain and anxiety are a normal part of life.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

DBT is a behavioral therapy supported by empirical evidence for treating several eating disorders, including anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia. DBT therapy begins with the assumption that the most effective first step in therapy is behavioral change. DBT focuses on helping you develop skills to replace harmful eating disorder behaviors.

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

The psychodynamic treatment approach centers on the idea that recovering from an eating disorder requires learning about the root cause of eating disorder symptoms. Psychodynamic psychotherapists view behaviors as a result of internal conflicts, motives, and unconscious forces. If behaviors stop without addressing their underlying reasons, relapse will likely occur. 

The safest and most effective way to overcome an eating disorder is to seek help at a professional treatment program like The Los Angeles Outpatient Center. Eating disorders will not resolve on their own, and to date, there is no “cure” or medication one can take. If you or a loved one has an eating disorder, seeking therapy to learn how to manage your symptoms, triggers, and other stressors that may lead to a relapse in harmful eating behaviors is crucial to maintaining lasting health and wellness. To learn more about treatment for eating disorders in L.A., contact a member of our treatment team today to learn more about our programs and how the caring and compassionate team at The Los Angeles Outpatient Center can help you take the first steps towards recovery.