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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of an Eating Disorder?

By Edited Jul 13, 2016 1 4

The Red Flags Are Waving...Be Sure You Know What They Are

Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating do not happen overnight. They occur because of a combination of factors, both environmental and biological. Because this is a mental illness which has a high percentage of reoccurrence, it is challenging to cure. In fact, it can takes years before the condition can be considered stabilized.

Many parents are unaware that their son or daughter has an eating disorder until it has developed into a full blown illness. Because we as parents are unaware of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, many of the red flags that are waving right in front of our eyes are not seen. We blame teenage hormones for the mood swings, testing the waters of different kinds of foods for dietary changes, and the desire to “get in shape” when they decide to start an exercise program.

However, when all of these things come together, it may signal that your child has an eating disorder.

But how can you be sure?

What Are the Signs of an Eating Disorder?

What Are the Signs of Anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is when a person begins to restrict eating. Life revolves around how much food s/he does not eat. It is like a personal contest to see how little food one can eat and not have anyone notice. Can I best my food intake from the previous day? How long can I go without eating any food? Will they notice if I do not eat dinner?

According to The Children’s Medical Center, some of the things you may notice is weight loss, especially in a child who is already thin. S/he may avoid eating with the family, finding excuses such as “I have a lot of homework” or “I had a late lunch” as reasons for not joining you.   [1]  

In fact, by hiding in their bedroom, your child is "using symptoms" and permitting the disorder to take over her life and not be a participant in other normal activity.

Your child may also have aversions to foods that s/he once loved. If they do join you for dinner, they will not eat what you have prepared, or they will pretend to eat by pushing food around their plate to give the appearance that they have eaten something.[2]

The Early Warning Signs That You Should Know

It can happen to your child

A Book for Parents Whose Child Has Anorexia

My Kid is Back: Empowering Parents to Beat Anorexia Nervosa
Amazon Price: $20.95 $16.33 Buy Now
(price as of Oct 6, 2015)
This book centers around family based treatment in helping children overcome anorexia. This book offers information parents can actually use in their child's recovery.

There are other signs of anorexia that are, in actuality red flags waving high in the air.  

Signs of Anorexia

The University of Michigan Health System has a series of informative videos about eating disorders. The have a Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program that does not place blame on parents,but acknowledges there are genetic, psychological and psychosocial factors that contribute to a person developing anorexia or bulimia.

In one with Laurie Fortlage MS, RD, she discusses some of the behaviors parents might see in a child who may succumb to anorexia. For example, a child who has never been interested in going on a diet or eating healthy foods is now asking which foods are good for her to eat. If a food is not “good” they will not eat it, as well as other foods. They begin to restrict what goes into their body.[3]

Some people who are the scales tipping toward developing anorexia consider becoming a vegan or vegetarian, hoping that this kind of diet will keep them or make them thin.[3]

Parents of teens know that moodiness goes along with the territory or raging hormones and the need for independence. But there is a huge difference between normal teen insolence and those of a child who have developed an eating disorder like anorexia. They are more quick to agitate over the slightest thing, as their brains are not functioning properly due to the lack of nutrition.[3]

Anorexics will begin to exercise compulsively and excessively. They will avoid being with family and friends if it means they cannot get in their daily quota of exercise.

In an interesting paradox, while anorexics are doing everything in their power to become thin, they hide their weight loss under baggy clothing. They are not only ashamed of this behavior, but they are afraid of being found out. If the weight loss is discovered by their parents, then they will take them to a doctor to put the weight back on. This is something a person with an eating disorder will try to avoid at all possible costs.

One other symptom of anorexia is that your child is cold, even when the weather is warm.  They cannot reulate their body heat, much like an underweight preemie who is born too soon and needs to be bundled up at all times.

Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia
Amazon Price: $25.99 $6.25 Buy Now
(price as of Oct 6, 2015)
This is one mother's story of how anorexia gripped her daughter and how she fought the disease using the Maudsley Method. It also shares how this horrible disease affects an entire family.

What Are the Signs of Bulimia Nervosa?

Do you recognize any of them?

Bulimics differ from anorexics because they do eat…they just purge it all afterwards. It is an emotional response to a psychological problem.

There are different behavioral signs that your child may be suffering from bulimia nervosa.

Have you noti

Signs and Symptoms of Bulimia
ced large quantities of food missing from your house? You just bought a bag of cookies yesterday and now they are all gone? That bag of chips was full and now is empty only hours later?[3]

You see your child ingest large quantities of food, more than normal, and over time s/he does not seem to be gaining any weight.[4]


Is there a hidden stash of food in your child’s bedroom or in a hidden place?

Have you found lots of food wrappers in the garbage? May be signs that your child has vomited in their garbage pail?[4]

Does your child go directly to the bathroom after eating a meal? You may see or smell vomiting in the bathroom. But all bulimics do not make noise when they purge…they learn to do it quietly. Their bedroom, bathroom and even you child smells like vomit. They try to mask the smell with mouthwash or teeth brushing.[4]

Your child’s hands or knuckles may have scratches or scars from shoving them down her throat.[4]

The Effects of Bulimia on the Body

A Memoir to Read and Heal

Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: Recover from Your Eating Disorder and Fall in Love with Life
Amazon Price: $18.00 $3.80 Buy Now
(price as of Oct 6, 2015)
This is a helpful book to help you on your journey to healing.

In isolation, these behaviors should not cause alarm. However, if you recognize several of them, it is time to call your pediatrician and take your child in for a check up and a talk. As a parent, it is your duty to know the signs and symptoms of eating disorders and get your child the help she needs.

For more information, please read:

Common Myths and Misconceptions About Eating Disorders

Do Parents Cause Eating Disorders?

Eating Disorders and Family Relationships



May 11, 2013 12:53pm
Great article! Can't wait to read more!
May 13, 2013 6:47pm
Thank you!
May 13, 2013 6:00pm
I went to school with a lady, who set her scales back so when she stepped on them, she weighed less, in her mind. She also bought a dog, not for companionship, like most people, but to have a reason to go running every night.
May 13, 2013 6:49pm
That sounds very disturbing...she sounds like she had eating issues. Those are red flags.
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  1. "Children with Eating Disorders - Recognize the Signs." www.youtube.com. 17/08/2009. 9/05/2013 <Web >
  2. EatingDIsorder101 "7 Early Warning Signs of A Eating Disorder ." www.youtube.com. 27/11/2011. 9/05/2013 <Web >
  3. UMHealthSystem "Eating disorder signs and symptoms." www.youtube.com. 21/12/2012. 9/05/2013 <Web >
  4. "Bulimia Nervosa." www.helpguide.org. 9/05/2013 <Web >

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