The longer disordered eating behaviors and thoughts go on, the more powerful and harmful they can become, so catching developing eating disorders early on can help someone avoid some of the worst outcomes of these illnesses and more quickly and easily get on the road to recovery.
It’s important to remember that this list only represents some of the most common symptoms of eating disorders. But if you recognize any of them in yourself or others, you may want to reach out to a medical professional for advice on the best next steps.
Most Common Symptoms of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are as unique as the person experiencing them. There are often several different ways the same disorder can manifest, and each type has its own set of symptoms, which are further influenced by the person’s specific physiology, medical history, and life experiences, among other factors.
But the following symptoms are fairly accurate warning signs that someone may be struggling.
Eating disorders may have a large impact on the physical body, but they are primarily mental health disorders.
As such, these are some of the most common mental health symptoms associated with eating disorders: 
- Adopting strict food regiments or rules
- Being uncomfortable eating around others
- Extreme or frequent mood swings
- Developing strange food rituals, such as only eating at a specific time
- Frequent dieting and/or excessive exercise
- Assessing oneself in the mirror regularly and negatively
- An obsession with body shape, weight, size, and fat
- A singular focus on nutritional facts, such as calories or fat grams
- Refusal to eat certain foods or entire food groups, such as carbohydrates
- Skipping meals regularly, such as only eating dinner every day
- Extreme picky eating, discounting foods of certain textures, colors, or other seemingly arbitrary traits
- Isolation from friends and family
Eating disorders tend to focus someone’s attention almost entirely on their bodies, the bodies of others, eating, and food, and these thoughts are often expressed in ways that are irrational, anxiety-inducing, and potentially dangerous.
Low self-esteem and poor body image are universal traits across nearly every type of eating disorder, and people may perceive their disordered behaviors to be positive, helpful, or warranted, despite the harm that is taking place.
Although eating disorders live in the mind, these conditions can have wicked consequences on the body, thanks to their deep connection to food, eating, and body image.
Some of the physical symptoms most associated with eating disorders include: 
- Brittle nails
- Cuts and calluses on the fingers, often from self-induced vomiting, sometimes called Russell’s Sign
- Dental problems, including cavities, tooth decay, and weak enamel
- Flaky skin and dried-out hair
- Rapid weight loss or weight gain
- Fainting easily
- Feeling cold frequently
- Fine hair on the body (lanugo)
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as nausea, diarrhea, and acid reflux
- Reduced immune function
- Menstrual abnormalities
- Muscle weakness
- Poor wound healing
- Difficulties concentrating
- Sleep issues, including insomnia
- Enlargement and swelling around the salivary glands
- Yellowish skin
And among eating disorders that involve both over- and under-eating, heart health complications remain a primary risk and concern. Disordered eating behaviors of all kinds can lead to electrolyte imbalance, which can cause a fatal cardiac event.  And heart health can also be threatened by blood pressure and cholesterol changes brought on by disordered eating behaviors. 
Long-Term Health Concerns
Eating disorders are regularly considered among the most dangerous types of mental health conditions, with many of them potentially resulting in life-threatening consequences.
Of all eating disorders, anorexia nervosa (AN) is generally considered the most dangerous. This condition is regularly reported to have the highest death rate among eating disorders due to the combination of medical complications associated with starvation and an increased risk of suicide connected to the illness. 
Bulimia nervosa (BN) has also been widely studied, with many of its long-term consequences also carrying major consequences, including potentially fatal electrolyte imbalances and a higher risk of suicidality and successfully completed suicide. 
Eating disorders like BN and AN may have the most extreme long-term consequences, but many types of disordered eating can lead to malnutrition, which is responsible for a host of other serious issues.
The body, and everything in it, is built almost entirely out of various minerals and proteins, and almost every organ and system in the body requires certain nutrients in order to function.
When the body simply isn’t receiving enough nutrients to fully sustain itself, it will turn to other sources to get what it needs. This often includes breaking down muscles and bones or shutting down bodily systems that are not considered vital in order to conserve energy.
Once these biological changes take place, it can be difficult, or even dangerous, to reverse them. People who have lost a significant portion of body weight are advised to refeed themselves under medical supervision for the first several weeks to avoid triggering any hazardous consequences.
Eating disorders that involve overeating can cause different but equally concerning effects as those that involve malnutrition.
Binge eating disorder (BED) and other eating disorders that involve frequent episodes of eating large amounts of food can bring on unhealthy weight gain, which can lead to: 
- Joint pain and osteoarthritis
- Liver and kidney disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Increased risk of Type 2 diabetes
- Fertility issues
- Metabolic syndrome
- An increased risk of certain cancers
Eating disorders are very complex conditions and are frequently brought on by, sustained through, or otherwise intertwined with co-occurring mental health conditions.
It’s thought that as much as 80% of people struggling with eating disorders experience comorbid or co-occurring mental disorders.  Among these, depression may be the most prevalent, with anywhere from 50-70% of patients with BN struggling with this co-diagnosis. 
As much as 80% of those with eating disorders also have co-occurring mental health issues.
Anxiety disorders of all types are also frequent, particularly among patients with anorexia nervosa. Between 24%-71% of patients with AN were found to have comorbid anxiety disorders in one study, including 35%-44% who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder specifically (OCD).
PTSD and Substance Use Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorder (SUD) also frequently co-occur with eating disorders of all types, with an estimated 50% of individuals with eating disorders exhibiting behavior related to alcohol or illicit drug abuse – a rate over five-times higher than that of the general population. 
These issues can potentially worsen a person’s eating disorder symptoms and complicate treatment. As such, it’s important to get these issues treated alongside an eating disorder, both to further improve mental health and to maximize the chances of a successful recovery.
When to Get Help for an Eating Disorder
The sooner one gets help to stop disordered eating behaviors, the less likely they are to experience serious health consequences.
Being able to admit these behaviors are doing more harm than good is a critical first step toward recovery. Once you’re able to acknowledge that change is needed, you should speak with a mental health professional as soon as you can.
These experts can provide a proper diagnosis to get you into a treatment program, help you craft a treatment plan themselves, or otherwise point you in the direction of the next best steps.
If you’re uncomfortable speaking with someone in person about your condition, you can call one of several eating disorder hotlines. These services allow you to remain anonymous while providing you with information, advice, and other resources that may help.
Overcoming an eating disorder may not be easy, but the sooner you can take steps in the direction of recovery, the better your chances of avoiding serious complications to your health and your happiness.
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