Eating Disorders Aren’t Always Obvious

Even if an individual doesn’t appear to have a severe eating disorder, the effects of dysfunctional eating certainly can cause dangerous medical complications. These seemingly “normal” persons can still present with the heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, electrolyte count, and organ damage as someone you’d recognize as having a severe eating disorder. Many of these individuals could meet the medical criteria for hospitalization, and yet, many are not receiving the treatment they need.

Anorexia and bulimia may be difficult to detect in people close to you for two reasons: personality characteristics common to women and girls who struggle with these disorders and the secrecy and dishonesty they use to hide the unhealthy eating behavior.

The Perfect Cover

Women and girls with eating disorders are often high-achievers who tend to form their personal identities around success and performance. They may be straight “A” students, highly engaged in school activities, accomplished athletes, highly successful in their careers, extreme people pleasers, and “Supermoms.” They may be very popular with their peers. They tend to get along well with others and rarely cause anyone any problems.

Unfortunately, they are also likely to “stuff” and internalize their emotions. They especially have difficulty expressing and processing feelings of anger and shame. It is common for them to hide behind a mask of positivity. That’s why, at least in the initial stages of an eating disorder, everything looks fine—great, even. It’s no wonder that most people can’t see the pain that is being hidden behind their façade.

Secrets and Lies

“Oh, I don’t want dinner because I ate a huge lunch,”
“I ate just before I got here!”
“Sorry, I just don’t eat meat or gluten or…”

For women and girls with anorexia, secrecy and dishonesty regarding their eating habits become the norm. Those with anorexia often develop sophisticated ways to make it appear as though they’ve eaten by cutting up their food into small pieces or pushing it around on their plates. They are also adept at getting rid of food during meals, by offering it to family pets or secreting it away into napkins. They also hide the physical ramifications of their eating disorder. As they become thinner and thinner, they may start wearing baggie clothes to disguise their dwindling bodies.

For those with bulimia, the secrecy tends to center on their binge and purge cycles. Often, girls with bulimia binge and purge at night while the family sleeps. A great deal of deception is also involved with the food itself. If family food is ingested during a binge, the loss will be noticed. Some, especially adolescents, may go so far as to steal money from other family members to replace the food consumed from the home or may shoplift the food. These behaviors—extreme food consumption, purging, and stealing—cause tremendous shame and guilt, which intensifies the need to maintain the deception.

One area of shared secrecy common among people with either disorder is exercise, which is often compulsive. Not only do women and girls with anorexia and bulimia lie about how much they exercise, but they frequently exercise in secret, usually at night, so no one will know.

What Are Some Lesser Known Signs of an Eating Disorder?

Clearly, certain aspects of anorexia and bulimia contribute to the difficulty in detecting these illnesses. There are, however, some lesser know indications you can look for if you suspect your friend, spouse, or loved one may be in danger.

  • Negative Body Image
    It is, unfortunately, fairly common for women to say things like “I’m so fat” on occasion, or to have a bad day once in a while where they don’t feel good about how they look. But, someone with an eating disorder may seem preoccupied with these thoughts, and express them often. They may also have a tendency to read criticism of their bodies into other people’s remarks. Someone might say, “This dress may be too small for you,” but they hear “you’re so fat.”
  • Fear of Eating in Public
    Fear of eating in public can indicate that that eating, in general, has become an overwhelming, extreme anxiety-inducing experience for a person. The thought of eating in public just makes the task seem that much more impossible.
  • Fine Body Hair and/or Dry Skin
    Women and girls who have been binging or starving for extended periods of time may develop soft, downy body hair on their arms and on other parts of their body. It is a symptom of malnourishment and starvation. The hair develops as the body’s attempt to keep itself warm. Some also may develop dry and blotchy skin, which is a result of dehydration. Frequent purging and as well as taking laxatives can cause severe dehydration. You may also notice that they have sunken cheeks and eyes and a dry mouth.
  • Feeling Unusually Cold
    Regularly complaining about being cold and wearing heavy clothing even in warm weather can be signs of an eating disorder, especially anorexia. Body fat stores energy and helps the body regulate its temperature. Women and girls with very low body fat can have difficulty maintaining a normal body temperature.
  • Eating Rituals and/or a Fixation on ‘Safe’ Foods
    Some people with eating disorders may focus on the quality of foods and may only a very limited variety of foods over and over. In fact, one of the early signs of an eating disorder is cutting out foods once liked, or even entire food groups, from their regular diet. Many also develop compulsive behaviors around food, such as cutting food into tiny bits or arranging foods in certain patterns.

How to Help

If you suspect that someone you love has an eating disorder, talk to them. Let them know you care about them and have a treatment resource available, like a phone number for a counselor or dietitian in your area who specializes in treating eating disorders. When you bring up your concerns, they will likely deny that they have a problem. They may even become angry or defensive. Don’t criticize or judge them, but be sincere and direct when sharing your worries. Encourage them to get help and let them know you will be there to support them.

If you have any questions about treatment options at The Meadows Ranch, please feel free to give us a call at 866-239-7381 or send us a message online. Our intake specialists talk to people every day who are in various stages of eating disorders and are happy to answer any questions you may have.

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