How do you know if your loved one has an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are complex. They can also be life threatening. So recognising an eating disorder in another person is important – but not always easy. A person with an eating disorder will often be negatively critical about their weight and shape, and about what they have eaten or not eaten. They will sometimes engage in extreme behaviours including:

  • starvation
  • bingeing
  • vomiting
  • compulsive exercise
  • the abuse of diuretics
  • the abuse of laxatives

Hidden problems – but extensive

Eating Disorders can have serious effects on all aspects of a person’s life:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Social

They are often very private and hidden problems. This is why they can exist for a long time before recognised by someone else, someone like you. It’s particularly difficult when early warning signs are similar to restrictive fad dieting so commonplace in western culture.

Why do they do these things?

This behaviour is a symptom of the eating disorder. It’s the outward sign of deeper psychological issues. These are habits people with eating disorders have formed to cope with stress.

Shouldn’t they just stop doing these things?

Unfortunately, it’s not that straight-forward. It is about understanding the complex nature of the mental illness – dealing with the cause as well as the symptom. Recovery from an eating disorder is not as simple as the person recognising the need to ‘just eat normally’.

Signs: behaviour, eating and body

People close to someone with an eating disorder may notice some of the following


  • Heightened moodiness
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Secrecy
  • Obsessiveness
  • Anger


  • Dieting
  • Increasing range of foods avoided
  • Avoiding communal eating
  • Counting kilojoules
  • Ritualistic or secretive eating


  • Weight Loss/fluctuation
  • Fine Body Hair
  • Lack menstruation
  • Increased exercise
  • Lack of energy
  • Cold (can’t get warm)
  • Wearing baggy clothes

Why an expert diagnosis is important

Some of these behaviours may be considered part of becoming an adolescent, an individual’s personality, going through menopause, or going on a diet to be ‘healthy’. That’s why seeking expert advice is recommended. Does your gut tell you what you are seeing is not ‘normal’? Follow your gut, and see a GP – preferably one with eating disorder expertise.  Download our GP Assessment tool to complete.

Call The Eating Disorders Association for a list of GP’s in QLD with eating disorder experience.

07 3077 7320 (Queensland only)

Expert advice

Not happy with the GP advice you received? Then get a second or third opinion. You may wish to call EDA first for a free telephone consultation to assess your individual situation and direct you towards appropriate professional support.  Review our eating disorder pathway for ideas on which part of the process you are at and where else it might be useful to go for assistance.

Which eating disorder?

There are a number of types of eating disorders, including:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)
  • EDNOS – Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified

Over time many people move between them (maybe start with anorexia and then move to binge eating). The most common two are bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia usually starts with restriction of food intake that leads to uncontrolled consumption of large amounts of food (bingeing). Feelings of guilt and panic can follow, leading to attempts to get rid of the food eaten. This eventually becomes a cycle of food restriction, bingeing and purging.

Anorexia Nervosa

About 0.5% to 1.0% of young women develop anorexia nervosa. It can affect women of any age. Approximately 5% of people with anorexia are male. Significant weight loss due to self-starvation characterises anorexia, often with serious medical complications.

More on signs and symptoms of individual eating disorders:

Articles on the National Eating Disorders Collaboration NEDC website [Aust]:

Starvation Syndrome

One of the well documented impact of eating less than the body requires is ‘starvation syndrome’. It is good to have an understanding of what this is as it has a huge impact on behaviour and thinking and it is why the first step of treatment is ‘food is medicine’ step. Until starvation syndrome is addressed leading to clearer thinking and emotional stablisation recovery from an eating disorder is not likely.


Eating Disorders: Effects of Starvation

KeltyMentalHealth 4 min [British Columbia]

How is the body affected by starvation.  Overviews the general effects of lack of nutrition and then talk briefly about starvation study.

Eating Disorders 101
National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) [AUST]
Length: 1.32 mins

Published summary:
How much do you really know about eating disorders? Most people have heard of them, but they don’t know all the facts. So here’s a crash course – Eating Disorders 101.

Eating Disorder Myths…Busted
National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) [AUST]
Length: 1.47 mins

Published summary:
Some people think that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice, a diet “gone too far” or a cry for attention. Others think that someone with an eating disorder has only themselves to blame. All of these things are untrue. Someone with an eating disorder requires serious medical treatment, as well as help and support from friends and family.

Eating Disorders from the inside out

TEDx Talk Dr Laura Hill  18.48

An informative scientific look at the thoughts, anxiety, disturbance and noise that goes with eating disorders.

Crash course on psychology of eating disorder
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) [US]
YouTube – Length: 10.11mins

Dr. Ken Weiner – Families Not to Blame for Eating Disorders
Mental Fitness Inc. [US]
Length: 1.01 mins

Dr Ken Weiner in 1 min video on the fact families don’t cause eating disorder but can be part of the solution.

Body Obsession Can Be Deadly series: Jenny
Butterfly Foundation
Length: 2.06 mins

Jenny gives us a small insight into the challenges of getting help for an eating disorder.

Body Obsession Can Be Deadly series: Judy
Butterfly Foundation
Length: 2.10 mins

Judy recalls the challenges and realities of caring for a daughter with Anorexia Nervosa.

EDNOS: Most Dangerous, Unheard of Eating Disorder
Nightline – ABC News [US]
Length: 8.01 mins

Video on ENDOS and young adult women (23 and early college)

What is an eating disorder?
National Eating Disorders Collaboration [AUST]

For more introductory information, including some myths about eating disorders.

Read Article Here

11 Myths About Eating Disorders, Debunked By Someone Who Lived It – Contributor: Brittany Burgunder [US]

Author of Safety in Numbers: From 56 to 221 Pounds, My Battle with Eating Disorders

Read Article Here

If you would like more detailed complex explanations these links are worth reviewing

Eating Disorders Guide

This is a current publication for Australia and NZ put out by Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists in January 2016, excellent summary of eating disorders and overview of treatment and those involved. Well worth downloading and keeping for reference.

Download Here


Down the Rabbit Hole, March 2014. Produced in USA but general information pertinent to Australians.

Download Here

Anorexia Nervosa

steps through a detailed including signs and symptoms, causes, treatment, tips and help (updated September 2016) – from

Download Here

Bulimia Nervosa

Steps through sign symptoms and wide variety of treatment and possible relevance – from the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Download Here

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating description in more detail (symptoms, causes, treatment and help) with a lot of links for further reading (updated January 2016) – from

Download Here

Clinical Diagnosis Of Eating Disorders: Anorexia Nervosa

Eating Disorders Assoc. (EDA) [AUST]

Read Article Here

Puzzling Symptoms Eating Disorders and the Brain

A F.E.A.S.T. Family Guide to the Neurobiology of Eating Disorders

Read Article Here

Journal of Eating Disorders

Journal of Eating Disorders is the first open access, peer-reviewed journal publishing leading research in the science and clinical practice of eating disorders.  This site contains research papers on Eating Disorders.  If you appreciate and understand technical medical papers it is a great resource.

Read Article Here

Talk it through with…

Eating Disorders Association’s support counsellor:
07 3077 7320 Monday – Thursday 9-4pm (Queensland only)
Butterfly Foundation Support Services Monday to Friday 8am – 9pm AEST

  1. ED HOPE 1800 33 4673
  2. Web counselling
Or encourage your loved one to call The Eating Issues Centre on 07 3844 6055 for information and support Tuesday – Friday 9-4pm (Queensland Only).
If you would prefer to email we will respond to you during office hours.