Warning Signs of Anorexia

How do you know if you or someone you love has anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is one of the leading causes and signs of illness in teens, but thousands of adults continue to suffer from the condition or developed it later in life. It affects teens and adults, girls and boys. About 10% of all anorexia cases occur in males. It is an eating disorder that causes the victim to stop eating or extremely limit their eating so they become dangerously thin. 

Fortunately, those with Anorexia can be helped. The first step is to notice and acknowledge the condition before you can move forward. Anorexia thrives in plain sight. Because being thin is considered socially desirable and the condition is often related to being attractive, anorexia is often missed or even willfully overlooked. Those with anorexia don’t realize their obsessions with health and weight have deranged into misconceptions and illness. Those who love someone with anorexia may overlook the condition to be supportive about any positive body perceptions instead.

It’s important to break through those mental and social blocks to see someone in medical danger and begin to make a difference. Here is a complete run-down of the symptoms of anorexia and how to spot them.

Anorexia as an Addiction

It helps to understand that anorexia is a psychological and physical condition. Physically, it’s an addiction. When a person (usually a young teen) doesn’t get enough food by choice or circumstance, the body adapts to the feeling of being hungry. The victim becomes addicted to being dangerously, starvingly hungry and feels wrong when that changes. They may develop a fear of food the same way an addict develops a fear of sobriety.

The psychological side is an attempt to control the world. Those with obsessive, compulsive, and perfectionist tendencies (often running in families) are more prone to anorexia than others. Those who have a psychological need to regain control, like victims of a traumatic event, may also choose food restriction as a method to make choices and feel powerful. This, too, becomes an addiction and eating may feel like losing control. 

Understanding these two things will put the individual symptoms into context. The psychological element of taking control combines with the physical addiction element and, ultimately, results in a condition that controls the victim. Anorexics are not doing it on purpose, even when their goals are part of the condition.

Body Weight Symptoms

For most, the mental-alarm doesn’t ring until we see someone who is dangerously thin. Family and friends realize there’s a problem when a person is below weight and gaining a skeletal appearance. Even an anorexic may have a moment of clarity if they catch a photo or reflection of their body without self-identifying immediately.

  • Rapid or Extreme Weight Loss
    • Sudden loss of weight or extreme non-stop weightloss are both dangerous signs that a person is no longer eating in a sane and self-sustaining manner.
  • Visibly Below a Healthy Weight
    • Watch for skeletal appearance. Look for signs of pronounced ribs, protruding spine, and visible tendons around the shoulders, knees, and elbows. 
    • 15% below healthy weight is the danger line
  • Inability to Gain Weight
    • Someone who was underweight for a reason and should be gaining weight may have anorexia triggered or enabled by the weightloss.

Conversational Clues

Anorexia is actually more apparent, before the danger-stages, in conversation. This is because of the psychological element of the condition. A person with anorexia generally holds certain opinions and beliefs that shape their behavior. Warning-sign statements usually focus on food, beauty, weight, and self-worth.

You may realize that the following warning signs are part of your every-day conversation. Whether you are hearing them from a loved-one or yourself.

  • Obsessed with Not Being Fat
    • The key psychological element of anorexia is a fear of being fat an a constant focus on one’s own body-fat and calorie intake. 
    • Overly concerned with not being fat, convinced one is fat, while being a healthy or under weight.
  • Describes Food in Great Detail
    • Someone who eats rarely but describes food as if it is a heavenly, detailed experience
  • Insults Food and Those Who Eat it
    • Always finding a reason that mentioned food is bad or gross.
    • Insults others who enjoy eating to distance themselves from wanting to eat.
  • Insists on Being Fat when Underweight
    • Distorted body image appears in conversation as constant insisting that the person is fat.
    • Differs from fishing for compliments. Obsession that cannot be soothed.
  • Pinches Self and Points Out Fat (Often Incorrectly)
    • Self-pinching is a hallmark of anorexic conversation. Often to reinforce the misconception that they have fat-deposits.
    • Women (80-90% of anorexics) have subcutaneous fat just below the skin that is necessary. This is mistaken for stored fat and pinched.
  • Distorted Perceptions of Own Weight, Attractiveness, or Muscularity 
    • Predominant in Men and Women with anorexia 
    • Thinks they are fat when under-weight
    • Thinks they are ugly when average or attractive
    • Thinks they are “scrawny” with good muscle tone
  • Different Standards of Beauty for Everyone Else
    • Reassures others that they are healthy and beautiful within norms
    • Holds unreasonably high-to-unhealthy standards of health and beauty for self
  • Lying About Eating
    • Those with anorexia often lie, stating that they ate a meal to keep others from realizing that they are starving.
    • Lying about having eaten can also become an obsession, related to hiding the condition and control

Behavioral Symptoms

You can also identify a pattern of anorexia by watching someone’s behavior. Behavioral symptoms are often what gets the attention of loved ones. Strange behaviors and changing attitudes can be another form or warning before dangerous weightloss has occured. Combined with conversational cues, behavioral symptoms are indicative.

  • Obsession with Food, Positive and Negative
    • When hungry, humans tend to obsess on food. 
    • Because anorexia results in constant hunger, those suffering may have an unusually intense relationship with food.
  • Obsessive Weighing and Body-Measuring
    • Watch out for signs of weighing multiple times a day, or body-measuring several times a week.
    • These show that a person is expecting to lose weight faster than is healthy, or are holding themselves to unrealistically strict expectations.
  • Refuses or Pretends to Eat Food
    • Pretending to eat is a common sign of hiding an eating disorder.
  • Fear of Restaurants
    • Many anorexics develop a fear of restaurants, where eating is the primary focus.
    • They may fear the temptation to eat delicious restaurant food or fear the guilt from not eating the food they order.
    • They may fear being discovered to not eat.
  • Long Periods of Fasting
    • Some amount of fasting can be healthy. But fasting for long periods of time can develop or hide anorexia.
  • Extreme Diets
    • Those with anorexia often start or facilitate the condition with extremely calorie-limiting diets.
    • Trying new extreme diets is another hallmark of eating disorders. Especially juice and smoothie diets that are not food.
  • Excessive Exercise
    • Anorexia and obsession with exercise are commonly joined. Exercise is a way to lose weight and gain muscle. This is influential for both male and female anorexia victims.
    • Exercising for more than two hours a day or obsessing over exercise can be a major warning sign, combined with other symptoms.
  • Dropped Libido
    • Dropping to an unhealthy weight tends to stop the desire for sex or sexual intimacy.
  • Wearing Too Many Layers of Clothing
    • Weightloss results in low body temperature, making anorexics cold all the time. So they stack on the clothing in unseasonable temperatures.
  • Social Withdrawal
    • Anorexia, like all eating disorders and addictions, eventually leads to social withdrawal.
    • This can also relate to fatigue symptoms.
  • Drinking Water Instead of Eating
    • Having water when others eat is a common sign of anorexia, and a way to mask the condition.
    • Anorexics realize they can curb their temptation and cause others not to notice that they don’t eat if they drink water at meals.
  • Avoiding Family Meals and Holidays
    • Family meals and special holiday dinners are often too much temptation and focus on food for an anorexic to handle.
  • Fear or Anger When Near Food or Pressured to Eat
    • Those with anorexia are obsessed with not eating. They will react like a cornered addict with fear, anger, or tears when they feel forced to eat.
    • This force might be extreme hunger and temptation near food or pressure from loved ones to eat.

Fatigue and Mental Symptoms

Fatigue is a common sign of anorexia, as low calories and progressive malnutrition both sap energy from the body. This appears in several different ways.

  • Feeling Tired All the Time
    • Low body weight results in low energy and fatigue.
  • Feeling Feint and Unfocused
    • Low calories supplying the brain will result in light-headedness and lack of focus.
  • Insomnia
    • Often, those with anorexia cannot sleep or stay asleep for long.
  • Loss of Strength
    • As the body loses weight, protein is leeched from the muscles. There is a distinct loss of muscle tone followed by increasing weakness.
  • Confusion and Loss of Attention
    • As a person starves themselves, they become unfocused and inattentive due to lack of blood sugar.
  • Irrationality and Mood Swings
    • Hunger from anorexia can also result in increasing irrationality.
    • With loss of blood sugar and energy for the brain, it becomes difficult for a person to remain sane, logical, or emotionally stable.

Hair and Skin Symptoms

You can also watch for the purely physical signs that malnutrition is beginning to take effect on someone with anorexia, yourself or a love done. One thing many anorexics don’t realize in their quest for self-improvement is how bad not eating is for hair, skin, and nails.

  • Dry Skin
    • Without the right nutrients to keep skin healthy, skin becomes dry and eventually scaly.
  • Discolored Fingertips
    • Lack of nutrients often shows in the fingertips. Anorexia leads to discoloration of the fingertip skin.
  • Dry and Brittle Nails
    • Nails are no longer strong. They become dry, brittle, and streaked because there are no building-blocks for healthy new nails.
  • Skin Takes a Yellow Tint
    • As the body sickens, anorexia causes skin to take on a yellow tinge that is a hallmark of unhealth and starvation.
  • Hairloss
    • Thinning and hairloss begin remarkably early for some with anorexia, while it is final sign of body failure for others.
  • New Soft hairs on Body
    • Sometimes anorexia causes new, very soft, hairs to grow over the body.

Physical Experiences

Finally, there are physical experiences that you or someone you know mai complain about regularly. These conditions may be mentioned or, sometimes, noticed from the outside by a doctor or attentive loved one.

  • Cramping and Abdominal Pain
    • Hunger causes abdominal pain, but anorexics often don’t realize their pain is related to not eating.
  • Eroded Teeth
    • When the body can’t sustain itself, the teeth begin to erode.
    • This condition is much worse with bulimia.
  • Loss of Muscle Tone
    • Watch for skin that goes slack and physical weakness to detect loss of muscle tone
  • Missed Mensturation
    • Women who lose too much weight eventually begin missing periods. This is a sign that the body would perish if she became pregnant.
  • Lowered Testosterone
    • For men who lose too much weight, eventually the body reduces testosterone production to reduce physical energy consumption.
  • Low Blood Sugar
    • Someone who has consistently low blood sugar is not getting enough to eat.
    • Symptoms of low blood sugar may be detected.
  • Feeling Cold All the Time
    • Those with anorexia may feel cold even under blankets and sweaters because, starving, they are not generating enough body heat.
  • Chronic Constipation
    • The digestive complications of anorexia often cause constant and painful constpiaton.
  • Swelling in Arms and Legs
    • Finally, as the organs begin to fail the arms and legs of an anorexia victim may begin to swell.

Identifying that someone has anorexia is only the first step. This is an often-misunderstood condition that can be difficult to overcome. But it can be done.  To start on the path toward recovery, for someone you love or for yourself, it begins with seeking treatment. Contact us today to consult on anorexia and what you can do.



If you are ready to discuss treatment for yourself or a loved one, the Fairwinds admissions team is here to help.

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