What is an Eating Disorder?

Image is of a question mark sign with the words "What is an eating disorder?" written in the sky

Image is of a question mark sign with the words "What is an eating disorder?" written in the sky

With all the focus on diet and exercise, it might be hard for you to spot an eating disorder. Maybe you think your loved one has an eating disorder, but you're just not sure. Here are some of the signs and symptoms, and for an even more detailed list, you can look click on these links for information on anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating

Extreme weight loss or gain

Often, but not always, when a person is struggling with an eating disorder, the first sign to those around him/her is a significant change in weight, especially when the person is ambivalent about it.

It is important to note that not everyone with an eating disorder loses or gains a noticeable amount of weight, so this should not be the sole criteria!

Food rules

People with eating disorders will have very extreme and rigid ideas about when, how, and how much food can or should be eaten.

Some examples of food rules include only eating at certain times or only eating certain types of food at specific times of the day. Over time, the eating disorder will create even more elaborate food rules, which will eliminate more and more food.

Preoccupation with food, weight, and body size

People with an eating disorder will think and/or talk about food and their body shape and size constantly. 

It is not uncommon for people with this level of preoccupation to prepare food for others, but refuse to eat it themselves.

Further signs would be if someone is compulsively on the scale, has an extreme fear of gaining weight, is constantly checking him/herself in reflective surfaces for signs of weight gain, or engaging in compulsive body-checking.

Body-checking is when someone pinches, grabs, or pokes at his/her body in an attempt to evaluate for changes in shape or size.

Eating in secret/hoarding food

Eating in secret may look like someone eating in the car, closets, or late at night while the rest of the house is sleeping.

Some people may eat in secret or hoard food due to living situations or trauma, which is why all of these behaviors should be looked at in the context of the individual's life. 

People at all ranges of the eating disorder spectrum, from anorexia to bulimia to binge-eating, may engage in food hoarding. People have reported having jars of food under their beds or stuffed in their cars. Not everyone who hoards food does so out of fear of running out or with the intention of eating it.


It is incredibly common for people with an eating disorder to withdraw from relationships and activities. The eating disorder has a goal of completely isolating its victim. 

People will report not wanting to give up the eating disorder because it has become their only friend.

As relationships fall away, there are less people to point out and attack the eating disorder. Similarly, a person doesn’t have to work as hard to hide food issues if he/she isn’t going out anymore. The eating disorder is able to gain more control as the person withdraws.

Distorted Body Image

Have you ever known someone who grabs at his/her body and call him/herself fat in an attempt to get you to contradict the statement? That’s not what an eating disorder does. 

Due to a neurological issue, someone with an eating disorder is unable to see, feel, or notice the exact size and shape of his/her body. Similarly, no amount of convincing on your part will sway someone with an eating disorder from what he/she perceives as an imperfect body.  

So, there you have just some of the signs and symptoms associated with an eating disorder. If you think you may have an eating disorder, or you think a loved one may have an eating disorder, it is important to seek help from a specialist.

Since eating disorders are complex and potentially life threatening, it is important to seek help from a therapist or physician specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. If you are in the Pacific Northwest and looking for help with the treatment of an eating disorder, I can help you in my Vancouver office. Schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation with me here


Tamara Werner

Tamara Werner is a counselor, author, speaker, and activist. Her private practice, Get Centered Counseling in Vancouver WA, helps women with food and body issues learn to love themselves, their body, their life, and their relationships. Her life’s work is steeped in personal experience, having fifteen years in recovery for anorexia, in addition to being a breast cancer survivor. An up and coming force in the counseling community, Tamara has been published in a textbook called Treatment Strategies for Substance and Process Addictions, and has sat on a panel at the American Counseling Association Conference, where she spoke to her peers on strategies and tools to use with clients struggling with eating disorders. Having a deep, personal understanding of what it takes to recover from this condition, she seeks to be an example to those she treats, to let them know that recovery is possible.