How to know if you or someone you care about has an eating disorder and what to do about it

Eating disorders are a serious mental health issue that can impact people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. They are characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating behaviours, thoughts, and emotions related to food, eating, body and weight. While the exact cause of eating disorders is not known, a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors may play a role.

Eating disorder warning signs

In your lifetime, it is likely you’ll know someone with an eating disorder as approximately 9% of Australians will experience an eating disorder. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder is the first step in getting help for yourself or someone you care about. It is important to understand that there are many different types of eating disorders and they don’t necessarily have a ‘look’. As a result they can be easily missed, including by some GPs who are not eating disorder informed. This is particularly so for people who may have anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa in a normative or higher body weight. It can be very helpful to learn some common eating disorder signs to look out for:

Extreme weight changes

Significant weight loss or weight gain in a short period of time can be a sign of an eating disorder or failure to gain weight if a growing child or adolescent. You may notice the person wearing baggy clothing or increased fixation on weight and body size including frequent weighing, body checking and conversations about body, weight, and shape.

Disturbed eating patterns

People with eating disorders may have irregular eating patterns, such as wanting to eat alone, fasting, skipping meals, hoarding food, binge eating, or restricting certain food groups such as becoming vegetarian and then progressing to a vegan diet. At mealtimes, they may also start saying they have already eaten, refusing social invitations that involve eating and engaging in purging behaviours, such as vomiting or using laxatives. Trips to the toilet or showers straight after mealtimes may be a sign of self-induced vomiting.

Preoccupation with food

People with eating disorders may have a preoccupation with food, including counting calories, reading food labels, following rigid rules around eating, serving sizes, specific food brands, weighing portions, using certain crockery and cutlery, or excessively planning meals. They may also be overly concerned with ‘clean eating’ or eliminating whole food groups such as carbs, dairy or fats.

Excessive exercise

Some people with eating disorders may exercise excessively to gain permission to eat, burn calories, or maintain a certain weight. They may start obsessively calculating and tracking calories using smart watches or apps and compulsively exercise despite injuries, fatigue or extremes in weather conditions. They may also become very agitated and angry if they are not able to exercise and may engage in fidgeting, pacing, and standing for extended periods of time.

Changes in mood and behaviour

Eating disorders can impact a person’s mood and behaviour, leading to increased anxiety, depression, irritability, low self-esteem, poor body image, dissatisfaction, and social withdrawal. They may also have difficulty concentrating or completing tasks and start displaying very rigid ‘black and white’ thinking such as labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Physical symptoms

Physical symptoms of eating disorders may include lots of digestive issues such as pain, bloating, feeling full quickly, diarrhoea, constipation, reflux, and nausea. They may also experience headaches, dizziness, fainting, chest pain, rapid or slow heartbeat, cold hands and feet, changes in the menstrual cycle and low libido.

If you or someone you care about is exhibiting these signs and symptoms, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can have long-lasting and potentially fatal consequences if left untreated. Here are some steps you can take to help:

Talk to a healthcare professional

A GP, Psychiatrist, Psychologist or Dietitian that is eating disorder-informed is a great first step towards discussing your concerns and getting specialised help. A GP can start monitoring physical health to ensure medically stability and provide guidance for setting up a support team.

Get support

Encourage the person to reach out to trusted friends, family, or free confidential support lines such as the Butterfly Support Line on 1800 33 4673 or their online chat. Live call Offer to go to appointments with them, even just to drive them and provide emotional support.

Educate yourself

Learn as much as you can about eating disorders, including the causes, symptoms, and treatments. This can help you understand the condition and offer support to the person in a more informed way. Show yourself some self-compassion and remember you are learning as well.

Encourage treatment

Treatment for eating disorders will include therapy such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Schema Therapy, Family-Based Therapy, Specialist Supportive Clinical Management, trauma therapy and sometimes medication. Encourage the person to seek treatment and be supportive throughout the process. Remember eating disorders can be treated and maintaining a hopeful space where recovery is possible, with the help of a treatment team is reassuring.

Avoid blame and show compassion

Eating disorders are not a choice and are not caused by personal weakness, a cry for attention or a lack of willpower. Listen non-judgementally and avoid blaming the person or making them feel ashamed and responsible for their condition. Provide them a safe space to talk about how they’re feeling and what’s going on for them. Avoid getting angry or guilt-tripping the person into feeling bad about how their behaviour is affecting others. Use ‘I’ statements such as ‘I’m worried about you’ rather than “You are hurting yourself for no reason.”

Take care of yourself

Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be emotionally and physically draining. It’s important to take care of yourself too and seek support from friends, family, or a therapist if you need it.

In conclusion, eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can significantly impact a person’s physical and emotional well-being. In Australia, over 1 million people of all genders and ages currently have an eating disorder with less than 25% getting treatment or support. With such high rates, chances are you will cross paths at some stage in your life with someone who has an eating disorder.

If you suspect that you or someone you care about has an eating disorder, it’s important to seek expert help from eating disorder-informed healthcare professionals as soon as possible. With the right support and treatment recovery is possible.

At Dietwise, we have specialised skills and experience in treating anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, OSFED and ARFID. We are Credentialed Eating Disorder Clinicians as awarded by ANZAED, so you can be sure you are in safe hands. We work alongside a wide network of eating disorder-informed professionals including, GPs, Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Paediatricians, Physiotherapists, Exercise Physiologists, Recovery Coaches and Art Therapists. We have minimal waitlists and can support people all over Australia, including rural and remote areas using Telehealth. Learn more about how we work to support recovery here.

Reach out today to our Dietwise Care Coordinators today to get started by contacting us on 08 9388 2423 or You can even contact us through our website here. We are open 6 days per week for in-person and Telehealth appointments including both after-hours and Saturdays.

Sonya Douglas

Accredited Practising Dietitian & Accredited Nutritionist

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