Back in college, my sorority had an initiative called "Fat Talk Free Week." The goal of the week-long campaign was simple: avoid speaking about weight, or anything related to it. While my behavior barely changed, my focus shifted immensely — was there always this much diet talk around me? Were seemingly innocuous comments about weight and body image always this common, and I just hadn't noticed before? For the first time, I realized how gray the area between "healthy" and "disordered" is, and how easily the early signs of an eating disorder can be missed in our diet-obsessed, skinny-worshipping culture.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the earlier an eating disorder is detected, the higher the chance for recovery. For many, recovery from an eating disorder is the difference between life and death. According to the National Eating Disorders Coalition, someone dies every 62 minutes as a result of their eating disorder. Eating disorders are not a lifestyle, a choice, or a "diet" — they are life-threatening mental illnesses. While the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder can vary from person to person, there are various red flags that can indicate you (or someone you love) is in the early stages of this truly awful, all-encompassing disease.
1. You've Developed Food "Rituals"
It's one thing if you like to eat the same thing for breakfast every day, but it's another thing if you refuse to have anything else. Food rituals can be anything from only eating "safe" foods, insisting on eating the same things at the same times every day, limiting yourself to low-calorie foods, and so on. Food rituals also include things like chewing your food a specific number of times, cutting up your food into extremely small bites, and not letting different foods on your plate touch, according to Marisa Sherry, MS, RD, a New York-based nutritionist who spoke to CBS. If you've found yourself becoming increasingly inflexible with your diet, you may be developing a problem.
2. You Skip Out On Social Events & Stop Doing Things You Love
For Rachel, 27, withdrawing from friends and family was one of the first symptoms of her eating disorder. Rachel, who is in recovery from a severe eating disorder after attending five different treatment centers over the course of four years, spoke to Romper about the warning signs she hopes other women will take seriously. "If you're making excuses to avoid lunch with friends, to not get home in time for dinner, and spend your day worrying about how to avoid your next meal or what your next meal will be, that's a big red flag," she says.
3. You've Started Telling "Little White Lies" About Your Eating Habits
Lying about how much (or little) you've eaten may seem harmless at first, but these fibs often mark the beginning of a much more serious problem. For Rachel, there was no turning back after she started concealing her eating habits. "Once you start lying, it's hard to stop. The early lies are the smallest, but by the time you have a full blown eating disorder, your entire life has become consumed by secrets and lies, and it's really difficult to find your way out."
4. You Weigh Yourself Religiously, & The Number On The Scale Severely Affects Your Mood
Some people have a habit of weighing themselves when they wake up and it's a normal and unremarkable part of their every day routine: wake up, put in your contacts, weigh yourself, have coffee. However, if you find that the number on the scale is impacting your mental health and actions for that day — either positively or negatively — this habit may already be going too far. "If you can't start the day without weighing yourself, and then your mood and decisions about what or if you're going to eat are based on that number, it's time to get help. Also, throw out your scale — and don't buy a new one," Rachel tells Romper.
5. Your Mind Is Preoccupied With Food, Calories, Dieting, & So On
It's one thing to look forward to a delicious meal, but it's another thing if food is all you can think about. According to NEDA, one of the biggest red flags of a developing eating disorder is a "preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting." If these thoughts are becoming pervasive — and you find yourself prioritizing food, dieting, and weight loss over other aspects of your life — it may be time to get help.
6. You're Defensive About Your Eating Habits.
If someone expressed concern about your eating habits and food rituals right now, would you be angry with them? Becoming fiercely protective over your secrets and defensive when someone threatens them is a common warning sign for an eating disorder. "When people would tell me, 'We're worried,' I would get enraged," Rachel says.
7. Food Has Become Both Reward & Punishment
The term "treat meal" is commonplace in today's diet culture, but when does this practice of having "treat meals" go too far? For Rachel, treating food as something to be used as any sort of reward or punishment is too far. "If you think that failing a test means you need to starve yourself, or that you have to 'earn' a dessert — those are red flags," she says.
If you recognize any of these warning signs in yourself, it's time to get help. The sooner you address your disordered eating, the more likely you are to become healthy yet again. For Rachel, who has walked the terrifying and lonely path of a severe eating disorder, there is no such thing as getting "premature" help. "You will never think you're sick enough, not when it's 'early' into your eating disorder, nor when your organs are shutting down. If someone offers you help, say yes. The sooner you accept it and start sharing your secrets and fears and everything underlying your struggles with eating, the sooner you start to get your life back."