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Signs and Symptoms

Detecting and Managing an Eating Disorder

By Irina Benaur, MD, PhD, and Darlene Osipuk, MD, co-medical directors, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset’s Eating Disorders Program

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders, Inc. ®, 95% of individuals suffering from eating disorders range between the ages of 12 and 25 years old. It is also reported that only one in 10 individuals with this disorder seek and obtain treatment. The awareness and understanding of these alarming statistics and that eating disorders can be a serious illness are particularly vital for middle school, high school and college students.

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the most common types of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is known as being obsessed with becoming thin, restricting their food intake and enhancing physical activity as a means of keeping body weight dangerously low. Bulimia nervosa is seen when individuals binge and purge: episodes of excessive eating and vomiting. This type of eating disorder can also consist of the improper use of laxatives or diuretics. When these disorders are not recognized and treated properly, they can lead to severe health issues including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, anemia, kidney dysfunction and in some cases, death. Because those who suffer from eating disorders do not always appear to be overly thin, it isn’t always easy to detect that a loved one is suffering from the illness. Like many other disorders and diseases, this illness is extremely difficult for one person to handle and overcome alone.

Important signs to look for that indicate a loved one may be suffering from an eating disorder can include:

Physical Signs

  • Rapid weight loss – A thin appearance or a weight loss of more than 15 percent usually signifies there might be an issue. Continual dieting is also a red flag.
  • Intolerance to the cold – People with anorexia or bulimia typically have difficulty tolerating colder weather.
  • Cessation of menstrual periods – Females who are suffering from an eating disorder may stop getting their period.
  • Tiredness – People with eating disorders often are extremely fatigued and may also be suffering from insomnia. It is also common for people to feel dizzy and faint.
  • Physical changes – Hair thinning or falling out, a bluish discoloration of the fingers, and dry skin are all warning signs of a potential eating disorder. Swelling of the arms and legs are also common.

Emotional and Behavioral Signs

  • Unusual food behaviors – These behaviors can include but are not limited to irregular eating, hiding food, refusing to eat in public or with family and friends, lying about how much food has been eaten.
  • Excessive exercise – Manyeating disorder patients have periods of compulsive exercising as a way of either counteracting the effects of eating or attempts at weight loss. Patients may experience intense anxiety if they are unable to engage in the exercise activity, and may reduce their social, school and work activities in order to fit in their exercise routine.
  • Emotional changes and social withdrawal – Social signs that may arise in someone who has an eating disorder includes a lack of emotion, irritability, depression, rapid mood changes, and a reduced interest in sex. The presence of extreme low self-esteem is also an emotional state that can often be a sign of eating disorders.

Eating disorders are commonly known to stem from an underlying problem such as a major or traumatic life event, family or social problems, or emotional issues including anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, low self-esteem, and stress. Individuals will use the disorder as a means to cope with these issues and feel that they are taking control. The need for resolution of the physical illness as well as the biological, psychological and sociological issues, typically results in a long and difficult treatment process. Treatment options vary depending on the case but typically include therapy/counseling, support groups, nutrition education and if necessary, medication management and education. While it can be difficult, appropriate treatment provides individuals the opportunity to develop more effective coping skills and ultimately facilitates a happier and healthier life.

If you believe that you or a loved one may have an eating disorder, visit your family physician to discuss any concerns, questions and options. For immediate evaluation and treatment options, contact your local hospital or call Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset’s Assessment Center at 1-800-300-0628. Services offered at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset’s Eating Disorders Program include an inpatient treatment center, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient services and weekly support groups. For more information on eating disorders and treatment services, contact us.