NHS waiting lists for people under 19 who are struggling with an eating disorder are at record levels (Picture: Getty)

Despite the stigma around the different kinds of eating disorders slowly beginning to break away, there is still a very narrow and stereotypical view of what an eating disorder looks like that pervades the national psyche. 

But, just because you’ve seen somebody eat a meal – or even the type of food you’d consider ‘unhealthy’ – that doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling with an eating disorder.

Last month it was revealed that NHS waiting lists for people under 19 who are struggling with an eating disorder were at record levels at the end of 2021, and eating disorders have been on the rise since the start of the pandemic.

Trigger warning: this article contains mention of disordered eating and behaviours related to disordered eating.

This Eating Disorder Awareness Week, it’s important to acknowledge that eating disorders present differently in every body and even in individuals over time. 

Debra Longsdale is the therapy services director at independent mental health care provider the Priory Group. 

Speaking on behalf of leading free global mental health app My Possible Self, she tells us: ‘Eating disorders are extremely complex and, although there may be more obvious signs such as rapid weight loss or weight gain, refusal to eat, being sick, or eating large amounts of food in a short space of time, the illness doesn’t always present physically.’

Longsdale has shared 11 of the more subtle signs of an eating disorder.

It’s important to note that, individually, each sign may not be cause for concern, they may be part of a larger issue. 

As Longsdale says: ‘It is important to remember that a person with an eating disorder is unlikely to display every sign or symptom. 

‘If you are concerned about a person and have observed a number of behaviours that could be signs of an eating disorder, it is important to look out for the person and support them at this time. 

‘Remind them that you care and will be there to listen, support and help them with tasks such as driving them to their doctors or sitting in with them during appointments.’

11 subtle signs that someone may have an eating disorder

Showing a large amount of interest in food and excessively talking about food

‘When someone is struggling with an eating disorder, they may become preoccupied with food,’ explains Longsdale. ‘They may start to watch more cooking programmes, read more recipes or prepare a lot of food without consuming it.’ 

While it’s true your friend could just be a foodie, or maybe they want to start a new hobby,  one study found that following a period of starvation, people can become heavily preoccupied by cooking and food, despite having no prior interest in it.

Regimented eating habits

‘The compulsive nature of many eating disorders can lead to a person developing rigid eating habits, where they become particularly meticulous in their eating routine’ says Longsdale. 

This could be something like only eating at very specific times of the day, and refusing to eat before or after a certain time: inflexibility around mealtimes may point to someone wanting to control their eating habits meticulously. 

Another sign could be, as Longsdale points out, someone only uses certain plates and bowls.

Adding lots of condiments to food

Again, condiments in and of themselves aren’t always associated with eating disorders.

But, Longsdale says, ‘A person may choose to use condiments that have flavour but few calories, such as vinegar, hot sauce, salsa, chilli, gravy, tabasco, salt and pepper. 

‘They may add copious amounts to mask the taste of their food, to deliberately spoil their food or to add volume to the plate.’

Wearing clothes that don’t fit

While baggy clothes and bodycon numbers are both simultaneously in fashion at the moment, wearing clothes that don’t fit might be a sign to look out for.

‘An eating disorder tends to be paired with a distorted body image and very little self-care,’ Longsdale says. 

‘Hiding behind clothes that don’t fit, or being attached to clothes that are too small with the hope that they ‘will fit’ can be subtle signs of an eating disorder. 

‘Individuals struggling with anorexia will also have extremely low body fat, so will be sensitive to the cold and need to layer up.’

Eating food in a particular way

‘Many people with eating disorders will have a particular routine when it comes to eating food,’ explains Longsdale. 

This can be especially prevalent in people suffering with bulimia. 

Longsdale adds: ‘For example, they may eat their salad first, leave carbohydrates until last or cut their food up into very small pieces.’ 


‘Constantly fidgeting or moving around can be a subtle sign of an eating disorder,’ says Longsdale. 

‘A person may try to use every occasion to move so that they can try and burn calories. 

‘They may even be unable to sit down or sit still for long periods of time.’

Chewing gum

Some people use gum to suppress their hunger so, while chewing gum may seem like a relatively normal behaviour, it may be something to look out for in accordance with other symptoms. 

‘Gum can be used to try and reduce energy intake or to prevent the feeling of hunger,’ says Longsdale. ‘The frequency and the amount of gum chewed can be an indicator of distorted behaviour.’

Generally eating the same foods

Some people with eating disorders have a mental list of what they call ‘safe’ foods and ‘fear’ foods. 

If someone only consumes a very limited variety of foods, it could signal a problem. 

‘A person may only feel ‘safe’ eating certain things, as they know the food’s calories or nutrition content,’ says Longsdale. 

‘This can even go as far as a person only eating certain brands of food.’

Over informed with nutrition

While nutrition labels and discussions about calories are everywhere, people with eating disorders are likely to have an intense understanding of nutrition, especially as it pertains to certain foods.

‘There is a huge amount of ‘diet culture’ shown in the news and in magazines,’ says Longsdale. ‘This can cause a person to hyper-focus or fixate on trying the latest trend, such as going gluten-free, which can lead to restrictive behaviour and an abundance of dietary rules.’

Skipping social situations

‘A slightly more noticeable sign of an eating disorder can be a person’s changing routine, where they no longer want to go out or be around other people,’ says Longsdale. 

This may be especially apparent if social plans involve food, but it could also be due to the low mental health associated with eating disorders. 

‘This withdrawal and reduction in social engagement can be caused by a number of different mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression, but it can also be closely linked to a person struggling with an eating disorder,’ says Longsdale. 

Mood changes

Finally, disordered eating patterns can lead to mood changes throughout the day. 

‘While it’s relatively normal to have mood swings throughout the day, if a person is experiencing the extreme ends of the scale, this can be a sign of an eating disorder,’ says Longsdale. 

‘When a person changes what they eat and when they eat, this can impact their hormones and lead to changes related to stress, anxiety and depression.’

My Possible Self is a free NHS endorsed global mental health app which provides holistic and engaging tools to support and improve the mental wellbeing of all. Their latest podcast out this week, available both online and in-app, discusses the important topic of eating disorders.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please call Beat on 0808 801 0677. Support and information is available 365 days a year. 

To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.

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