Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Eating Disorders

7 Subtle Signs of an Eating Disorder

2. Exercising, no matter how sick, tired, or bad one feels.

Key points

  • If you find yourself always dieting, exercising, or obsessing over food, you might have an eating disorder.
  • All eating disorders are life-threatening, watch out for these key signs.
  • A core feature of eating disorders is viewing weight or shape central to self-concept.
Joeyy Lee/Unsplash
Source: Joeyy Lee/Unsplash

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week occurs at the end of February each year. Appropriate awareness of eating disorders is so critical, partly because of widely accepted diet culture and fatphobia.

Eating disorders are also tricky gremlins. They show up slowly, under your awareness, until suddenly things feel completely out of control. One of the hallmark symptoms is a lack of awareness of the seriousness of the disorder—meaning that by the time you need help, you may already be at the bottom of a dark pit.

Save yourself from the slippery slope before you're at the bottom. Here are seven signs you may have an eating disorder, but don't know it.

  1. You're always dieting. Keto. Atkins. Gluten-free. Paleo. You know all the buzzwords. You are constantly trying the newest and latest trend in nutrition, hoping it will bring you peace with your body and eating. You may even cycle between dieting and binge eating all the "forbidden" foods. Or you tell yourself that your dieting is a "lifestyle." Regardless of how you view it, most of your life is spent dieting, researching diets, or feeling guilty for not being on a diet.
  2. You only eat clean, pure. You don't "diet" per se, but only eat "clean," organic, or pure (such as no processed sugars, no bread, organic-only foods, and only non-caloric beverages) Your purity doesn't allow for any deviation, even if you're out with friends or craving a fun food you really like.
  3. You exercise no matter what. Purposeful movement is great for mood, cardiovascular health, and overall well-being. But you take it too far. You feel a compulsive need to exercise. You feel as though you have to "earn" rest days. Because of this, you exercise even when circumstances warrant rest, like when you're sick or injured. You tell yourself it's for your health, but you feel like exercise is more of a "must," and less of a want.
  4. You find yourself constantly judging the appearance of others. You don't mean to do this, but you often find your mind drifting toward the appearance of others. You constantly find yourself using labels like "skinny," "fit," or "fat." You play the comparison game, seeing in others what you wish your body looked like, or laser-focusing on certain attributes you don't like.
  5. Your eating greatly influences your mood. On days you label as "good eating days," you feel on top of the world. Alternatively, if you feel you ate "too much," or "bad" foods, your mood plummets. You feel dejected, guilty, and ashamed. If you find your mood changing with a certain weight number, how your clothes fit, or achieving a certain body aesthetic, this may also be a red flag.
  6. You eat less to compensate. You engage in compensatory behavior, meaning you try to "correct" or "make up" for "bad" food behaviors by being overly restrictive, exercising more, vomiting, or using cleanses, diet pills, laxatives, or diuretics. You may even engage in a behavior called drunkorexia, in which you eat less on days you plan to use alcohol.
  7. You've conflated worth with body metrics. Over time, you've found your self-esteem is completely dependent on your weight and shape. You ignore other aspects of your personality. You've given up things you used to love like hobbies or friends. You confuse thinness with "goodness" or high morality, and higher weight with the opposite. You cannot un-pair your self-concept from your appearance. This is different than valuing beauty. For some, eating disorder symptoms have nothing to do with beauty or vanity. Instead, you feel you aren't worthwhile as a person unless you follow the eating disorder (food rules, achieving a certain weight or shape).

Get Off the Hamster Wheel

If you are showing any of these signs, it's time to get more information or talk to an informed professional. All eating disorders are life-threatening and symptoms must be treated swiftly and ferociously for optimal recovery. Even if you feel things "aren't that bad," that can be a core feature of the eating disorder that keeps it going. Don't allow the shiny distraction of a certain weight or thinness to derail your health, life, and well-being.

Want more tips like this? Sign up for my free newsletter.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: HTU/Shutterstock

More from Marina Harris Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today