Identifying an Eating Disorder in its Earliest Stages

Eating disorders can be one of the most difficult types of obsessive-compulsive conditions to overcome, as those who are diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia are often so deeply enmeshed in the food-phobic worlds they have constructed for themselves that they can no longer remember that a different way of life exists. But fortunately, victims of eating disorders do not reach this stage overnight – anorexia and bulimia take time to fully develop, and if those closest to a female adolescent or young woman who is in danger of becoming anorexic or bulimic are paying close enough attention, they should be able to spot some early tell-tale signs that will let them know that something is amiss.

Even though anorexia and bulimia are somewhat different conditions, they do share certain common indicators that we will be discussing shortly. If there is someone you know and care about who is demonstrating any of the behaviors or showing any of the signs or characteristics that are associated with eating disorders, this is something you need to take very seriously. Either alone or in coordination with others, you will need to sit down and have a frank conversation with your loved one about what might be going on in her life.

Food Obsessions

In most instances, the very first signs of trouble will involve an obsessive preoccupation with food. Those who are sliding down the slippery slope toward an eating disorder will suddenly begin treating food as if it were an enemy, becoming very calorie conscious and rejecting things that they ate willingly in the past. One by one, they will keep adding foods to their taboo list, until the menu of things they are willing to eat becomes quite narrow. Unlike those who begin cutting junk foods, sweets, and other nutritionally-empty products from their diets, however, fledgling anorexics and bulimia sufferers will tend to compile rather eccentric lists of what they will or won’t consume, and in some cases junk foods may actually predominate over more healthy choices.

Eating disorder victims can also begin showing patterns of deception or secretive behavior related to food. Binge eating is one defining characteristic of bulimia, and if foods begin mysteriously disappearing from refrigerators, candy bowls, or cookie jars without explanation, this can be an indication that something more than just ordinary snacking is taking place. Those who may be slipping into anorexia, on the other hand, may begin to develop the habit of filling their plates with normal amounts of food at meal times, only to end up throwing much of it in the garbage later, often when they think no one else is looking.

Distorted Body Images

Those who develop eating disorders tend to be very dissatisfied with the way they look, to the point that they are no longer capable of accurately assessing their own physical appearance. Even if they have begun losing some weight, for example, they will remain convinced they are still too fat and that they look terrible, and in the early stages of their condition they will express these sentiments quite frequently to others. Later, once they realize that their behavior is raising suspicions, they will start to become more reticent, but when their preoccupation with their weight and general appearance is still new they will have no idea their self-image is so distorted and they will just assume that everyone else is seeing the same things they see when they look in the mirror.

In the case of anorexia, excessive weight loss is obviously the most significant symptom of the disorder. However, in the initial stages of the disease the victim’s weight loss may actually be relatively modest, so if you are waiting to see your loved one waste away right before your eyes before actually doing anything you are probably going to miss your opportunity to make a positive impact.

The Emotional Rollercoaster

Those caught in the downward cycle of an eating disorder will go through changes in personality that will be very obvious to all who know them well. Irritability, over-sensitivity to criticism, perfectionism, compulsiveness, depression, unprovoked anxiety, and a desire to be alone are just a few of the indicators that often accompany the onset of anorexia or bulimia, and if any of these personality characteristics are manifesting at the same time as a food obsession and/or a distorted body image, there is unquestionably a good reason to be concerned.

One interesting thing about those who develop eating disorders is that they are frequently high achievers in the other parts of their lives. They tend to be the best students, the best athletes, the hardest workers, the most popular; they are the types of people who are constantly on the go, and by all outward appearances they would seem to have the world by the tail. But all of this achievement can paradoxically be a cover for deep-seated self-esteem problems, which is why some high-achieving women or girls may be vulnerable to weight obsession and eating disorders.

Let Love and Kindness Be Your Guide

If someone you care for is starting to exhibit signs of an eating disorder, you should be talking to other family members to let them know about it and to get their feedback. However, the first contact with the person you are concerned about should not be a group-style full scale intervention like the ones you have seen on TV. At this early stage, a potential victim of anorexia or bulimia would likely be scared out of their wits by such an approach, and it is virtually inconceivable that she would be willing to listen to what any of you would have to say.

When you do go to speak to her, you should go alone, and the tone of the conversation should be gentle and non-confrontational. Sound her out about what she has been thinking and feeling, and what has been going on in her life. At some point, you will want to mention your specific concerns, and you will want to bring up the possibility of her going to see someone who has some expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders. Other family members can then follow your example, so that your loved one will come to know of the concerns you all have. If there is someone in the family who is particularly close to the person you are trying to help, you might want to let them talk to her first before you do anything. But regardless of the order of presentation, everyone who is close enough to make an impression should involve themselves in this process in some way.

While there is no guarantee this approach will work immediately, your chances of eventually persuading your loved one to admit what has been happening and accept help will be greatly enhanced if your interactions with her are infused with the spirit of a loving, compassionate embrace. Those suffering from eating disorders exist in a fragile psychological state, and that is something that must be taken into account by those who cherish them and want to help them recover.

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