Eating Disorders: Symptoms

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  • Young men's version of this guide

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Eating Disorders Awareness

Anorexia Nervosa: Symptoms of anorexia can be hard to notice because people with this condition can be very good at hiding their eating disorder behaviors. They may take small bites, organize their food, or “pick” at food when they eat. They often avoid eating around others to hide their behavior or because it causes anxiety. They may also dress in clothes that hide the amount of weight that they have lost and avoid being seen in revealing clothes such as bathing suits.

Some of the signs of anorexia nervosa are:


  • Brittle nails
  • Low energy
  • Constipation (trouble having regular and soft bowel movements)
  • Dehydration (not enough fluids in the body)
  • Dizziness
  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Dry skin
  • Extreme thinness
  • Growth of lanugo (soft furry hair) on face, back, and arms
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of periods (amenorrhea)
  • Low blood pressure and irregular heartbeat
  • Orangey color to the skin
  • Paleness
  • Poor concentration
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Slow heart rate
  • Slow or stunted growth
  • Swelling of legs, feet, or ankles
  • Weak bones (that can lead to fracture and osteoporosis)


  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Denial of a problem
  • Depression
  • Distorted body image (believes their body looks different than it actual does)
  • Body checking (frequent checking of weight, measuring of body parts, examining in the mirror)
  • Fear of weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Lack of emotion
  • Low self-esteem
  • Obsession with food
  • Perfectionism
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities

Bulimia Nervosa: You often can’t tell if someone has bulimia by their appearance because many of the symptoms aren’t as obvious as with anorexia nervosa. People with bulimia are usually not underweight and often hide their eating habits and behaviors so friends and family won’t always notice that there’s a problem.

Some of the signs of bulimia nervosa are:


  • Constipation (trouble having regular and soft bowel movements)
  • Dehydration (not enough fluids in the body)
  • Dry, flaky skin
  • Electrolyte problems (not the right balance of the fluids in the body)
  • Irregular heartbeat (caused by low potassium levels)
  • Irregular periods
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen face (from extra fluid in the body or enlarged salivary glands)
  • Tooth decay/loss (cavities, loose teeth)
  • Weight fluctuations (weight loss and gain)


  • Anger that is hard to control
  • Denial of a problem
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Distorted body image (believes that their body looks different than it actually does)
  • Body checking (frequent checking of weight, measuring of body parts, examining in the mirror)
  • Fear of weight gain
  • Impulsivity
  • Intense focus on “flaws” and physical appearance
  • Shame or guilt
  • Withdrawal from friends

Binge Eating Disorder: Most of the outwardly physical signs of binge eating disorder are related to weight fluctuations that can occur with eating large quantities of food.. People with binge eating disorder are often, but not always, in larger bodies. The loss of control that happens in binge eating disorder can lead to significant emotional distress such as guilt and shame.

Some of the signs of binge eating disorder are:


  • Gallbladder disease
  • High blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Insulin resistance
  • Joint pain
  • Type II Diabetes
  • Weight gain


  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Shame, loneliness, and self-hatred
  • Withdrawal from friends

What happens when a person doesn’t eat?

Our bodies use food as fuel to keep all the important organs and cells running well. When a person doesn’t eat, their body doesn’t get the fuel it needs, causing organs and body parts to suffer. This is often called low energy availability, simply meaning that the body has low energy stores and not enough energy for normal body functions. Low energy availability affects the body in the following ways:

Heart & Circulation: The heart is a muscle that can shrink and weaken when a person doesn’t eat enough. This can create circulation problems and an irregular or very slow heartbeat. Blood pressure can drop very low during starvation and a person may feel dizzy when they stand up (which can lead to fainting if severe).

Stomach: The stomach becomes smaller when a person doesn’t eat or eats less for a prolonged period of time so when they start eating again, the stomach will likely feel uncomfortable (stomach aches and/or gas). Also, the stomach will not empty as fast, making a person feel full longer.

Intestines: The intestines will move food slowly through the gastrointestinal system often resulting in constipation (trouble having a bowel movement) and/or stomach aches or cramps when eating meals.

Brain: The brain, which controls the body’s functions, does not work properly without food. For example, a person may have trouble thinking clearly or paying attention. They could also feel anxious and sad.

Body Cells: The balance of electrolytes in the blood can be changed with malnutrition or with purging. Without food, the amount of potassium and phosphorous can get dangerously low which can cause problems with muscles and brain functioning.  Low potassium or phosphorus can also cause life-threatening heart rhythm problems.

Bones: When a person doesn’t eat, their bones often become weak due to low calcium and low hormone levels, which increases the risk of breaking a bone (like a stress fracture) and prematurely developing weak bones (increasing risk for osteoporosis).

Body Temperature: The body naturally lowers its temperature in times of starvation to conserve energy and protect vital organs. When this happens, there is a decrease in circulation (blood flow) to fingers and toes which will often cause hands and feet to feel cold and look bluish.

Skin: Skin becomes dry when the body is not well hydrated and when it does not get enough vitamins and minerals from food. The skin will naturally protect the body during periods of starvation by developing fine, soft hair called “lanugo” that covers the skin to keep the body warm.

Hair: When hair doesn’t get enough nourishment from the vitamins and minerals that are naturally found in food, it becomes dry, thin, and it can even fall out.

Nails: Nails require nutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals from the diet. When a person doesn’t eat, nails become dry, brittle, and break easily.

Teeth: Teeth need vitamin D and calcium from food sources. Without vitamin D and calcium, a person can end up with dental problems such as tooth decay and gum disease. Purging can also destroy tooth enamel.