20 Subtle Eating Disorder Signs

Here are some lesser-known patterns associated with eating disorders.

Posted Nov 07, 2018

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The core symptoms of eating disorders are those that are part of the diagnosis, including binge eating and/or purging, and weight loss (in the case of anorexia). However, there are also many more subtle patterns that are common in people with eating disorders. 

Here are some of those. No one will display all of these, but any one person may display quite a few of these patterns. At the end of the list, I'll explain why it's useful to be aware of these, whether you have an eating disorder yourself or you have a loved one who does.

Subtle Signs of an Eating Disorder

1. Using only particular utensils or plates to eat.

2. Using eating paraphernalia intended for children (e.g., children's plates or trays that have portion dividers, or eating while wearing a child's bib).

3. Excessive interest in what other people are eating; e.g., asking other people to describe the taste of their meal in detail, or asking people about what they ate, like inquiring about what a spouse ate when on a business trip.

4. Eating unusual combinations of food, like mixing sweet and savory in unusual combinations.

5. Very specific counting and measuring, such as always adding three raisins to oatmeal.

6. Carefully inspecting food at the supermarket, like picking up many packages of food to see which looks the most appealing.

7. Becoming very upset if a slightly wrong item is purchased by, or for, you; e.g., accidentally buying a low salt/regular version of an item when the other was desired, or getting upset about buying the wrong brand when the item is close to identical.

8. Food rules; e.g., only eating food that has over a week left till the expiration date.

9. Having inflexible routines around eating, like the person can only eat if wearing a particular hair tie.

10. Doing a lot of research on food ingredients and perhaps ordering lots of specialty products, like teas or powders that are purported to have health benefits.

11. Feeling very agitated if you can't do your typical exercise, or it gets interrupted.

12. Overcompensating if exercise is missed or interrupted. For example, you miss 30 seconds of a workout because of an interruption, but you do an extra 5 minutes to make it up, instead of just an extra 30 seconds.

13. Eating fast or slow.

14. Using an amount of seasoning on food that other people might find unpalatable, for instance, using a very large quantity of pepper flakes or low-calorie sweeteners.

15. Reading recipe books or watching a lot of food-related YouTube or other video content.

16. Saving or hoarding food-related items, like saving many plastic utensils or seasoning packets from takeout.

17. Eating regular food using mini-spoons, like the ones typically given with gelato or frozen yogurt.

18. Liking your food either under-cooked or over-cooked.

19. Encouraging other people to eat higher-calorie foods that you're not eating yourself. For instance, you order a salad at a restaurant, but encourage your lunch companions to order a creamy curry or fried dish.

20. Amending recipes (e.g., making 20 smaller cookies instead of 10 standard-sized ones).

Why Is It Important to Be Mindful of These Patterns?

Many of the subtle symptoms I've mentioned don't directly impact health, so let's address why it's important to understand them: 

  • Having an eating disorder sometimes leaves the individual feeling ashamed or like they're going crazy. Understanding that the types of symptoms I've outlined are common may help you feel less ashamed or less confused about why you're experiencing instincts to do these things. For instance, even in people without a particular vulnerability to eating disorders, food restriction often leads to these types of symptoms, and the symptoms often last beyond the period of restriction itself into the recovery period. Both physiological (calorie) and psychological (food rules or cutting out foods or food groups) restriction can trigger these symptoms.
  • Becoming aware of these less well-known symptoms can help parents, spouses, and other loved ones to be more understanding of what's going on, especially when an individual lacks insight themselves or has a hard time talking about these symptoms. Awareness can also help loved ones set some helpful limits, like not answering excessive questions about what they've eaten or engaging in excessive conversations about specialty or fad food products.
  • If you're sliding into a clinical disorder, curbing these patterns may help prevent that slide.
  • If you've recovered or partially recovered, great job! Be mindful if any of these patterns are increasing. If they are, you'll probably want to try to curb them (or at least curb the increase) to help prevent relapse.

Note: Recovering from an eating disorder is hard. If you're still displaying some of the patterns I've pointed out, I don't want to minimize the hard work you've done in addressing your core symptoms. Please don't feel excessively judged, but be mindful of these patterns, especially in terms of change or increase. While an ideal scenario (and the most robust type of recovery) is reducing these patterns, a stable level of these might be less of a problem than if you notice you're becoming more rigid or obsessive.

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