Eating disorders symptoms vary with the particular type of eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa

When you have anorexia nervosa (an-o-REK-see-uh nur-VOH-suh), you're obsessed with food and being thin, sometimes to the point of deadly self-starvation.

Anorexia signs and symptoms may include:

  • Refusal to eat and denial of hunger
  • An intense fear of gaining weight
  • A negative or distorted self-image
  • Excessive exercise
  • Flat mood or lack of emotion
  • Irritability
  • Fear of eating in public
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Social withdrawal
  • Thin appearance
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Soft, downy hair present on the body (lanugo)
  • Menstrual irregularities or loss of menstruation (amenorrhea)
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dry skin
  • Frequently being cold
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dehydration

Bulimia nervosa

When you have bulimia, you have episodes of bingeing and purging. During these episodes, you typically eat a large amount of food in a short duration and then try to rid yourself of the extra calories through vomiting or excessive exercise. You may be at a normal weight or even a bit overweight.

Bulimia signs and symptoms may include:

  • Eating until the point of discomfort or pain, often with high-fat or sweet foods
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Laxative use
  • Excessive exercise
  • An unhealthy focus on body shape and weight
  • A distorted, excessively negative body image
  • Low self-esteem
  • Going to the bathroom after eating or during meals
  • A feeling that you can't control your eating behavior
  • Abnormal bowel functioning
  • Damaged teeth and gums
  • Swollen salivary glands in the cheeks
  • Sores in the throat and mouth
  • Dehydration
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Sores, scars or calluses on the knuckles or hands
  • Menstrual irregularities or loss of menstruation (amenorrhea)
  • Constant dieting or fasting
  • Possibly, drug or alcohol abuse

Binge-eating disorder

When you have binge-eating disorder, you regularly eat excessive amounts of food (binge), but don't try to compensate for this behavior with exercise or purging as someone with bulimia or anorexia might. You may eat when you're not hungry and continue eating even long after you're uncomfortably full. After a binge, you may feel guilty or ashamed, which can trigger a new round of bingeing. You may be a normal weight, overweight or obese.

Symptoms of binge-eating disorder may include:

  • Eating to the point of discomfort or pain
  • Eating much more food during a binge episode than during a normal meal or snack
  • Eating faster during binge episodes
  • Feeling that your eating behavior is out of control
  • Frequently eating alone
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted or upset over the amount eaten

When to see a doctor

Because of its powerful pull, an eating disorder can be difficult to manage or overcome by yourself. Eating disorders can virtually take over your life. You may think about food all the time, spend hours agonizing over what to eat and exercise to exhaustion. You may feel ashamed, sad, hopeless, drained, irritable and anxious. You may also have a host of physical problems because of your eating disorder, such as irregular heartbeats, fatigue, and bowel or menstrual troubles. If you're experiencing any of these problems, or if you think you may have an eating disorder, seek medical help.

Urging a loved one to seek treatment

Unfortunately, many people with eating disorders resist treatment. If you have a loved one you're worried about, urge him or her to talk to a doctor. Even if your loved one isn't ready to acknowledge having an issue with food, you may be able to open the door by expressing concern and a desire to listen. If you're concerned your child may have an eating disorder, contact his or her doctor about your concerns. You can get a referral to qualified mental health providers for treatment.

Keep in mind, however, that in children it's sometimes hard to tell what's an eating disorder and what's simply a whim, a new fad, or experimentation with a vegetarian diet or other eating styles. In addition, many girls and sometimes boys go on diets to lose weight, but stop dieting after a short time. If you're a parent or guardian, be careful not to mistake occasional dieting with an eating disorder. On the other hand, be alert for eating patterns and beliefs that may signal unhealthy behavior, as well as peer pressure that may trigger eating disorders.

Red flags that may indicate an eating disorder include:

  • Skipping meals
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Eating only a few certain "safe" foods, usually those low in fat and calories
  • Adopting rigid meal or eating rituals, such as cutting food into tiny pieces or spitting food out after chewing
  • Cooking elaborate meals for others, but refusing to eat them themselves
  • Collecting recipes
  • Withdrawing from normal social activities
  • Persistent worry or complaining about being fat
  • A distorted body image, such as complaining about being fat despite being underweight
  • Not wanting to eat in public
  • Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
  • Wearing baggy or layered clothing
  • Repeatedly eating large amounts of sweet or high-fat foods
  • Use of syrup of ipecac, laxatives, the over-the-counter weight-loss drug orlistat (Alli), or over-the-counter drugs that can cause fluid loss, such as menstrual symptom relief medications
  • Use of dietary supplements or herbal products for weight loss
  • Food hoarding
  • Leaving during meals to use the toilet
  • Eating in secret
Feb. 08, 2012

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