If you have a complicated relationship with food, the way your body looks, how much time you spend in the gym, or anything else related to those things, you're far from alone. Many people, men and women, struggle, at least from time to time, with how they think their body looks. Not all of these people, of course, have an eating disorder, but the signs of a high-functioning eating disorder are still important to know because you might not think that someone else (or even yourself) is truly struggling if it seems as though they have everything together, but there could be subtle signs there that tell you that they are.
Ultimately, you can't tell if someone has an eating disorder solely by looking at what they look like. Just because someone is thin or heavy doesn't mean that they do or don't have an eating disorder or otherwise deal with disordered eating, Dr. Alexis Conason, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and eating disorder expert, tells Romper. And it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between what's OK, what's normal, and what's a more severe red flag. Conason says that part of the issue here is that many women, in particular, aren't entirely satisfied with the way that their body looks because they're constantly being told that they should look a different way, whether that's stronger, slimmer, or something else. And because these things are so ingrained in many people's minds, there are a lot of things that might actually be problematic that doesn't register that way in your head.
"So it’s kind of a spectrum of the same symptoms that we’re all struggling with, but it can take on a different level of severity," Conason says. "But I think that it’s problematic across the board and I think that a lot of it does circle back to that it’s not so much an individual problem as much as a cultural problem and I think when we see 91 percent of women being affected by something, that’s not an individual problem, that’s a reflection of our culture, something that we’re being taught."
Understanding what sorts of behaviors that many people see as normal because they're so common, societally, but might actually be signs of a potential problem is important. But so is recognizing that each and every sign or symptom falls on a spectrum. Just because you do one of these things doesn't mean that you're dealing with a diagnosable eating disorder. Conason says that, in her mind, asking yourself the question of how much of an impact your eating, food, and body image are having on you in terms of mental energy can be important in helping you determine if you should seek help or not. Even if you aren't dealing with a disorder in the sense that you meet the criteria necessary for a diagnosis, you can still benefit from working with a qualified therapist if you're experiencing distress.
1. Always Being On A Diet
Just the fact that you put yourself on a diet or are trying something new doesn't necessarily mean that you have an eating disorder, but Conason says that it's not uncommon for eating disorders to start as a diet. Again, the severity of what's going on matters here. Regardless of how much you weigh or what your body looks like, if you're dieting, it can potentially be an eating disorder red flag, particularly if you're obsessively counting calories, eliminating entire food groups, or taking other more extreme measures.
2. Being Very Focused On Weight, Calories, Or Healthy Eating
"Often a person can become hyper-focused on nutrition, weight, and calories," Channing Marinari, LMHC, QS, MCAP, ICADC, clinical outreach at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches, tells Romper by email. Restricting your calorie intake, focusing on a certain number on the scale, or fearing foods that you think are unhealthy can all be potential indicators that you're dealing with disordered eating. Marinari says that it's important to try to address this as soon as you can because otherwise it can get worse over time.
3. Hiding Wrappers Or Garbage In The Bottom Of The Trash
If you've eaten something and you don't want anyone else to know what you've eaten, hiding it in the bottom of the trashcan can seem like a good idea, but it's also something that can be problematic.
"These behaviors may start out as logical coping mechanisms for dealing with illogical conditions and situations," Dr. Deborah J. Cohan, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort who specializes in body image issues, gender, and more, tells Romper by email. "But at some point, they become a problem for which intervention and treatment are needed for mental and physical health and survival."
Jut because someone has a great job, seemingly wonderful relationship, and more doesn't mean that they're also secretly dealing with something like this.
4. Cutting Out Food Groups
This is one of those things that might sound relatively normal — and it's clearly common, if you take a look at some of the current dieting trends — but experts are quick to note that this can also be a sign that there's something going on that isn't OK.
"Often times individuals continue to engage in school and work, even if there are eating disorder behaviors," Laura McLain, PsyD, the site director at The Renfrew Center of Atlanta, tells Romper by email. "They may have the illusion that they don’t have a problem, but eventually the deprivation catches up with the brain and body. They may show signs of fatigue, difficulties concentrating, and may be more irritable or struggle to manage the stress in their lives in helpful ways. Individuals are often just surviving every day rather than truly thriving in their lives."
5. Classifying Foods As Good Or Bad
This is also something that society has made into a more common thing, telling you to "be bad" and eat the dessert or sneak an extra cookie after putting the kids to bed. But classifying foods as good or bad can be another potentially problematic sign.
"This puts people in the position of feeling virtuous and on a high when they eat nutritiously and shaming [or] hating themselves when they eat non-nutritiously," Karen R. Koenig, MEd, LCSW, a psychology of eating psychotherapist, author, and blogger, tells Romper in an email exchange.
And that can set you up for feeling like you've succeeded or failed based on what you've eaten or not eaten that day, which isn't good.
"These behaviors usually do not occur in isolation," Koenig adds. "If you hop on the scale several times a day, you may also think about foods as 'good' and 'bad' (rather than more and less nutritious), or purge after eating. This is not necessarily the case, but there is generally a constellation of eating disorder symptoms even in high-functioning people. And sub-clinical behaviors often morph into more obvious and destructive ones over time. Having one or two of these behaviors is often only the tip of the iceberg and will often lead to having more of them in the future."
6. Skipping Activities Or Canceling Plans To Hit The Gym
There are so many benefits that come along with exercising and one way to make sure that you fit in your workout is to make it a priority, but if you're skipping activities that you like to do or canceling plans so that you can make sure you don't miss a workout, that can be a sign that something's not right.
"Even though behaviors don’t seem like a 'big deal' to someone, they might be impacting their physical and mental health in ways they don’t even notice," Carla Korn, LMFT, a psychotherapist and eating disorder and body image specialist, tells Romper in an email exchange. And regularly skipping out on time with friends and family or things that you enjoy can take a toll.
7. Bringing Your Own Food Everywhere You Go
If you have severe allergies or other medical conditions that require a specific diet, that's one thing (following your doctor's recommendations can help keep you well), but if you're avoiding meals out with loved ones or bringing your own food so that you can be sure that you have control over what you're eating, that can be a sign that your relationship with food might not be entirely healthy. Korn says that this is another potential red flag. "The first thing to do if you are worried about yourself or someone else is to simply have compassion (or self-compassion!)," Korn explains. "These behaviors usually develop as a way of helping someone cope with life when they don’t have a better way of doing so."
8. Making Food For Others, But Not Eating It Yourself
Making food for other people is something that brings some people joy, but if you're making things for other people and eating very little yourself, that can also be an indicator that everything isn't OK. "The pleasure of feeding becomes a safe substitute for the pleasure of eating," Koenig explains.
If you are concerned about some of your beliefs or practices surrounding food or are worried about someone else, reaching out to a qualified therapist or speaking compassionately and supportively to your loved one can help. Professionals can help ease your struggle and help you move forward more healthfully.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.