Eating Disorder Awareness 2022: 11 Subtle Signs of an Eating Disorder

Illustration of a woman looking at the plate

NHS waiting lists for people under 19 struggling with an eating disorder are at record levels (Image: Getty)

Although the stigma surrounding the different types of eating disorders is beginning to lift, there is still a very narrow and stereotypical view of what an eating disorder looks like that permeates the national psyche.

But just because you’ve seen someone eat a meal — or even the type of food you would consider “unhealthy” — doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling with an eating disorder.

It was revealed last month that there were NHS waiting lists for people under the age of 19 struggling with an eating disorder Record levels in late 2021 and eating disorders on the rise since the pandemic began.

Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of eating disorders and behaviors related to eating disorders.

During this eating disorder awareness week, it’s important to recognize that eating disorders present themselves differently in every body, and even in every person, over time.

Debra Longsdale is Director of Therapy Services at Priory Group, an independent mental health provider.

Speaking on behalf of the leading free global mental health app, My Possible Self, she tells us, “Eating disorders are extremely complex and although there may be more obvious signs such as rapid weight loss or weight gain, refusal to eat, vomiting or vomiting large amounts in a short period of time If you eat food, the disease does not always manifest itself physically.”

Longsdale shared 11 of the more subtle signs of an eating disorder.

It’s important to note that each sign on its own may not be a cause for concern, but may be part of a larger problem.

As Longsdale says, “It’s important to remember that a person with an eating disorder is unlikely to exhibit all of the signs or symptoms.

“If you are concerned about a person and have observed a range of behaviors that could be signs of an eating disorder, it is important to pay attention to the person and support them at this time.

“Remind them that you care about them and are there to listen to them, support them, and help them with tasks like driving them to their doctors or staying with them for appointments.”

11 subtle signs someone might have an eating disorder

Showing a keen interest in food and talking about food excessively

“If someone is struggling with an eating disorder, they may be preoccupied with eating,” Longsdale explains. “They may watch more cooking shows, read more recipes, or prepare a lot of food without consuming it.”

While it’s true that your friend is just a foodie or maybe looking to pick up a new hobby, one study found that after a period of hunger, people can become intensely engaged in cooking and eating that they previously had no interest in.

Regulated Eating Habits

“The compulsive nature of many eating disorders can cause a person to develop rigid eating habits where they become extra meticulous in their eating routine,” says Longsdale.

For example, eating only at very specific times of the day and refusing to eat before or after a certain time: Inflexibility with meal times may indicate that someone wants meticulous control of their eating habits.

Another sign, Longsdale says, could be someone only using certain plates and bowls.

Adding lots of spices to foods

Again, spices, in and of themselves, are not always associated with eating disorders.

But, Longsdale says, “A person may choose to use condiments that are flavorful but low in calories, such as vinegar, hot sauce, salsa, chili, sauce, Tabasco, salt and pepper.”

“They can add large amounts to mask the flavor of their food, to intentionally spoil their food, or to add volume to the plate.”

Wearing clothes that don’t fit

While baggy clothing and form-fitting numbers are both in fashion at the same time right now, wearing clothes that don’t fit could be a sign to watch out for.

“An eating disorder often comes with a distorted body image and very little self-care,” says Longsdale.

“Hidden behind clothing that doesn’t fit, or being attached to clothing that’s too small in hopes it will ‘fit’ can be a subtle sign of an eating disorder.

“People struggling with anorexia also have extremely low body fat, so they are sensitive to the cold and need to layer.”

Eat a certain way

“Many people with eating disorders have a particular routine when it comes to eating,” explains Longsdale.

This can be especially common in people suffering from bulimia.

Adds Longsdale, “For example, they can eat their salad first, leave carbs until last, or cut their food into very small pieces.”


“Constant fidgeting or fidgeting can be a subtle sign of an eating disorder,” says Longsdale.

“A person may try to take every opportunity to exercise so they can try to burn calories.

“You may not even be able to sit down or sit still for long periods of time.”

chewing gum

Some people use chewing gum to suppress their hunger. While gum chewing may seem like a relatively normal behavior, it can be something to look out for along with other symptoms.

“Gum can be used to reduce energy intake or to prevent hunger pangs,” says Longsdale. “The frequency and amount of gum chewing may be an indicator of distorted behavior.”

Generally eat the same foods

Some people with eating disorders have a mental list of foods that they call “safe” and “fear.”

If someone eats a very limited range of foods, it could indicate a problem.

“A person may only feel ‘safe’ eating certain things because they know the calories or the nutritional value of the food,” says Longsdale.

“It can even go as far as a person only eating certain food brands.”

About informed with nutrition

While nutritional labels and discussions about calories are ubiquitous, people with eating disorders likely have an intense understanding of nutrition, particularly as it relates to specific foods.

“There’s a huge amount of ‘food culture’ being shown in the news and magazines,” says Longsdale. “This can lead a person to become overly focused or fixated on trying the latest trend, such as going gluten-free, which can lead to restrictive behavior and a plethora of dietary rules.”

Skip social situations

“A slightly more noticeable sign of an eating disorder may be a person’s changing routine where they no longer want to go out or be around other people,” says Longsdale.

This can be particularly evident when social plans include food, but it could also be due to the poor mental health associated with eating disorders.

“This withdrawal and reduction in social engagement can be caused by a number of different mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression, but can also be closely related to a person struggling with an eating disorder,” says Longsdale.

mood swings

Finally, disrupted eating habits can lead to mood swings throughout the day.

“While it’s relatively normal to have mood swings throughout the day, if a person is experiencing the extreme ends of the scale, it can be a sign of an eating disorder,” says Longsdale.

“When a person changes what they eat and when they eat, it can affect their hormones and lead to changes related to stress, anxiety and depression.”

My Possible Self is a free NHS-accredited global mental health app that provides holistic and engaging tools to support and improve everyone’s mental wellbeing. Her latest podcast, coming out this week, is both available on-line and in-app, covers the important topic of eating disorders.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please callBeaton 0808 801 0677. Support and information is available 365 days a year.

Join our Mentally Yours Facebook group to talk about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space.

Follow us on Twitter at @Mental Yrs.

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MORE: Eating disorder services at ‘breaking point’ with ‘two-year wait for treatment’ Eating Disorder Awareness 2022: 11 Subtle Signs of an Eating Disorder

Sarah Y. Kim

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