7 Subtle signs of eating disorders most people miss

Eating disorders are often silent, creeping into lives without the loud fanfare of other health issues. They can twist how someone sees food, their body, and themselves, affecting millions worldwide. Yet, for all their prevalence, many of their signs slip under the radar.

This blog highlights subtle signals that are easy to miss but crucial to catch. Think about it: how often do we notice when a friend suddenly starts wearing baggier clothes for no apparent reason or when a family member develops an intense, almost secretive relationship with food and exercise?

These changes can easily be brushed off as personal choices or phases. However, they might signal something deeper.

What are the subtle signs of eating disorders?

Eating disorders are complex and chameleon-like in how they present themselves. Sometimes, they hide in plain sight, not through the harrowing statistics we hear about, but through the hard-to-spot [1], rare minutes of the mundane.

Here are seven subtle, often overlooked signs that may point to an eating disorder.

1. Preoccupation with food, weight, and body image

Having a keen eye on one’s diet and appearance isn’t unusual, but there’s a fine line where this attention can become overwhelming.

When someone crosses this line, their focus on food, weight, and body image might indicate deeper issues. They might spend excessive time looking at nutrition facts, counting every calorie precisely.

Conversations often revolve around dieting strategies, body size, or exercise routines, overshadowing other topics. They may persistently be dissatisfied with their body, regardless of shape or size.

Checking their reflection frequently, seeking reassurance, or finding faults becomes a routine part of their day. Social media use may shift towards following extreme dieting or fitness influencers, further fueling their obsession.

This behavior isn’t a mere habit; it’s a sign pointing to a possible struggle with self-image and control over eating. Recognizing these patterns is crucial for offering understanding and support.

Preoccupation with food, weight, and body image
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2. Changes in eating habits

Adjusting attitudes toward eating out can be a subtle sign that someone’s relationship with food is changing [2]. Here are key shifts to be aware of:

  • They often opt out of invitations to eat at restaurants, preferring to avoid the situation altogether.
  • When they agree to dine out, there’s visible tension or unease about menu choices.
  • They might stick to specific restaurants where they’re familiar with the menu or can easily find something that fits their dietary restrictions.
  • There’s a noticeable preference for ordering the same dish repeatedly, avoiding any deviation from what’s considered “safe.”
  • Conversations about choosing a place to eat may become fraught with excuses or indecision, reflecting underlying anxiety about food.

These changes aren’t just about food preferences; they signal a deeper discomfort with the unpredictability of eating away from home.

3. Excessive exercise

Excessive physical routines often fly under the radar, masquerading as dedication or fitness goals. Yet, they can be a hidden factor in eating disorders. Here’s what might signal an issue:

  • The routine becomes non-negotiable, with workouts taking precedence over social gatherings, rest, and even work.
  • They may exercise excessively, beyond what’s considered healthy, aiming to “burn off” calories from meals.
  • Rest days are rare or non-existent, filled with guilt or anxiety if a workout is missed.
  • The intensity of workouts increases, especially after eating more than usual.
  • Physical signs of over-exercising, like constant fatigue, injury, or significant weight changes, become apparent.

This overemphasis on exercise isn’t just about staying fit; it’s an attempt to exert control over one’s body in an unhealthy way. Recognizing this pattern is crucial for understanding and addressing the underlying issues.

4. Avoiding social activities involving food

The joy of attending social gatherings can often dim for someone struggling with an eating disorder. They start to avoid get-togethers, especially if they know food will play a central role. Their interest in celebrations they once enjoyed lessens, overshadowed by the presence of a meal.

A need for privacy or secretive behavior crops up, particularly regarding their dining choices. Small notes of uneasiness or boundary-pushing against partaking in the banquet, much unlike their former disposition.

Sending ready-made appearances on how rations will be managed suggests an entire act is at play, centering around the proposed meal.

This pivot is less about the company they once wove through with ease and more about the accidental cutting of personal food and body image battles [3]. It’s a marked nudge for members of their circle to front an exercise in compassion and awareness.

5. Frequent trips to the bathroom during or after meals

Quick, unnoticed trips to the toilet during or after meals can signal a struggle that’s hard to see. They might excuse themselves immediately after eating, becoming a pattern that’s too regular to ignore.

A newfound habit of drinking excessive amounts of water or other beverages during meals, possibly to facilitate a visit to the bathroom.

The bathroom becomes a frequent destination, not just at home but also in restaurants or at friends’ houses.

The sounds of running water to mask other noises might be a deliberate attempt to maintain privacy over what’s happening. They return looking flushed or show other signs of physical distress, often brushing it off if noticed.

These visits aren’t just about needing a moment; they could be a hidden part of coping with eating distress. Spotting these signs early can lead to support, understanding, and care.

6. Showing a cycle of extreme eating behaviors

When it comes to eating, extremes can become the norm for someone struggling with an eating disorder. This might manifest as either a superabundance campaign, where too much food is consumed in one sitting, or a landslide allotment, where food intake is drastically reduced.

Here’s what that could look like:

  • Episodes of eating significantly more food in a short period than most people would in a similar timeframe, often done secretly [4].
  • Following these episodes, there may be periods of severe restriction, with minimal to no food intake, as a way to compensate.
  • Either avoiding meals altogether or indulging to an excessive degree.
  • Emotional responses tied to these eating behaviors, such as guilt or shame after a binge or a sense of control or accomplishment during restriction.
  • These patterns disrupt normal eating habits, significantly impacting physical health and emotional well-being.

Recognizing these extremes is crucial—they are indicators that someone might need compassionate support and professional guidance to find balance again.

7. Unhealthy food and body image obsessions

Some people’s preoccupation with food and body image can sometimes lead to unusual behaviors and obsessive calculations.

Obsessing over the number of bites or sips, believing there’s a perfect amount that will make everything okay. Weighing food to the gram, convinced that even a slight deviation could spell disaster.

Assigning moral values to foods, labeling them as “good” or “bad,” and feeling guilty for consuming them. Creating complex rules around eating, like what time of day it’s “safe” to eat or combining foods in specific ways.

Counting calories with an intensity beyond general health consciousness often leads to unnecessary restriction.

These aren’t just quirky habits; they’re signs of an unhealthy fixation that could be hiding deeper issues. Recognizing these patterns is the first step toward understanding and, eventually, seeking help.

Unhealthy food and body image obsessions
Photograph: maksymiv/Envato

How can you support someone with an eating disorder?

Spotting the subtle signs of an eating disorder in someone you care about can be worrisome, but knowing what steps to take can make all the difference. Here’s how to proceed with empathy and action:

  1. Start a conversation: Choose a quiet, private time to express your concerns. Use “I” statements to avoid making them feel defensive. For example, “I’ve noticed you seem stressed about eating out lately, and I’m worried about you.”
  2. Listen without judgment: Be ready to listen more than you speak. Your role isn’t to diagnose but to support. Let them share their feelings and thoughts without interrupting or offering unsolicited advice.
  3. Educate yourself: Learn about eating disorders. Understanding the complexity of these conditions helps you communicate more effectively and compassionately.
  4. Encourage professional help: Gently suggest the benefits of seeking advice from a healthcare professional. Offer to help them find a therapist or doctor, but don’t push if they’re not ready.
  5. Stay supportive: Let them know you’re there for them, regardless of their decision to seek help. Your support is a constant in their journey to recovery.
  6. Avoid commenting on appearance: Focus on their health and well-being rather than appearance. Comments on weight or body shape, even if well-intentioned, can be triggering.
  7. Set boundaries: Take care of your emotional health. Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be draining, so seek support for yourself, too [5].

The path to recovery is often long and challenging, but your support can be a critical part of their healing process.

In closing

Recognizing the subtle signs of an eating disorder can be the lifeline someone needs, potentially steering them toward recovery and a healthier future. It’s crucial, then, to stay vigilant and compassionate, offering support without judgment.

Eating disorders are complex, multifaceted issues that require understanding, patience, and professional guidance to navigate.

Remember, you’re not alone in this. There are countless resources available for both individuals struggling with eating disorders and their loved ones.

Seeking help from professionals—therapists, dietitians, and support groups—can provide the necessary care and guidance for recovery.


What is an eating disorder best described as?

An eating disorder is a mental health condition characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food and body image. It can lead to serious physical and psychological consequences.

Who is most likely to get an eating disorder?

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age, gender, or background. These conditions do not discriminate and can affect individuals from all walks of life.

Are eating disorders considered a choice?

No, eating disorders are not a choice. They are complex conditions that arise from a combination of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors.

[1] https://www.viewpointcenter.com/understanding-signs-and-symptoms-of-eating-disorders/
[2] https://naturalfoodtherapy.co.uk/relationship-with-food-6-signs/
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8001450/
[4] https://adaa.org/eating-disorders/types-of-eating-disorders
[5] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/eating-disorders/helping-someone-with-an-eating-disorder.htm

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