The Pennsylvania Educational Network for Eating Disorders

North Hills Village Mall
4801 McKnight Rd., RM 205
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15237


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Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Just as there is no single cause for an eating disorder, there is also no single criterion for determining whether someone is suffering with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. However, the following information may give you a starting point on what signs to look for. Please note that the pronoun "she" is used in the following descriptions for the sake of maintaining uniformity, although eating disorders can occur in both females and males.

  • Does the person have a history of repeated dieting that may alternate with periods of bingeing and/or periods of fasting? When you express concern that she is already thin, does she respond with "I just need to lose five more pounds" and then continue to diet and change her goal weight as she reaches each new mark? Does she exhibit a fear of gaining weight and becoming fat?
  • Is she able to view her body size objectively when you tell her she is not overweight, or does she respond that she is fat (she may actually see herself that way) even when everyone around her tells her that she has gotten too thin or that she is of normal weight?
  • Does she frequently refuse to eat meals with family or friends with the explanation that she ate somewhere else or at another time? Is there food missing that no one in the family can explain? Does she eat in secret during the night or when no one is home?
  • Does she seem to eat a great deal of food at mealtimes without gaining weight? Does she excuse herself from the table immediately following meals and go into the bathroom? Do you hear a lot of water running during these trips to the bathroom or find tell-tale signs of vomiting?
  • Have you found empty boxes or bottles of laxatives, diuretics, diet pills, or syrup of ipecac? Are there frequent complaints of stomachaches, constipation and/or other gastrointestinal disturbances?
  • Does she profess to exercise in order to stay fit, but spend several hours a day doing aerobics, running, calisthenics and other forms of exercise to the exclusion of other activities? Does she panic when she cannot fit her exercise routine into her daily schedule?
  • Have you noticed frequent mood swings, irritability, emotional instability or depression? Has she expressed a desire to die or kill herself?
  • Have there been menstrual irregularities or a cessation of her menses? Does she complain of shortness of breath, muscle cramps, frequent sore throats or rapid heartbeat? Does she seem to be having more frequent colds and infections? Have you noticed swelling in her parotid glands (salivary glands, just below and in front of each ear)?
  • Is she experiencing more frequent dental problems, such as an increase in cavities, periodontal problems or an erosion of her dental enamel?
  • Does she always feel cold and wear many layers of clothes to cover up her body shape? Have you noticed a fine downy hair beginning to grow on her body?
  • Is she a perfectionist and a high achiever who never seems to feel good about herself or her achievements? Is she experiencing difficulty in maintaining concentration and making decisions? Is she frequently complaining of not being able to sleep and feeling tired and lethargic?
  • Is she experiencing problems with her interpersonal relationships and beginning to withdraw from social activities and friends?

These warning signs associated with eating disorders are only meant to make you aware of the more typical symptoms and behaviors. If you suspect that someone you know may have an eating disorder, it is important that you address the topic with her in a caring, non-judgmental manner, then recommend a thorough psychological and medical assessment by professionals who have had training and experience in working with these potentially life-threatening problems.