Aren’t There Obvious Visual Clues to an Eating Disorder?

Many people with eating disorders report that a doctor or therapist has refused to treat an eating disorder, based on faulty stereotypes. This occurs because many people—even professionals—believe that weight or visual characteristics can be used to identify an eating disorder. For example, many assume that people with anorexia will be bone-protruding thin, that binge eaters will be obese, and people with bulimia will have an average weight. It isn't that simple!

Anyone can have an eating disorder, no matter what shape or weight they have.

Diagnosing eating disorders with medical diagnostic tools, such as blood tests, may also be difficult. In some cases, restricting, purging, and bingeing behaviors affect every bodily system, but in other cases there may be no detectable physical signs. This is why the diagnosis of an eating disorder primarily focuses on behaviors and thoughts. Another problem is that most people with eating disorders do not fit neatly into one of the standard types: anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating. Instead, many people have a combination of restricting, purging, and bingeing symptoms, and many shift from one type of eating disorder to another over time. So, don't be too concerned about the categories.

Take this simple quiz to see if you might have an eating disorder.

  • Do you ever eat until you feel sick?
  • Do you worry that you have lost control over how much you eat?
  • Have you recently lost or gained 15 or more pounds in a 3-month period?
  • Do you believe yourself to be fat when others say you are too thin?
  • Would you say that food dominates your life?
  • Do you eat in secret or alone?
  • Do you feel disgusted, ashamed, or depressed after eating?
  • Do you eat to escape from worries, relieve stress, or to comfort yourself?
  • Are you obsessed with your body and your weight?
  • Do you vomit, exercise, or take laxatives to control your weight?
  • Do you base your self-worth on your body shape or weight?
  • Do you feel “in control” or powerful when you diet, purge, or exercise?

If you answered “yes” for two or more of these questions, you should be assessed for an eating disorder. Eating disorders can be life-threatening, so please don't put it off. Did you notice that none of those questions asks about your body shape or about how much you weigh? Don't assume that body shape and weight are clear signs of eating disorders or even health. Instead, it's much more useful to look at behaviors and thoughts!