15 Red Flags of Problematic Eating

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15 Red Flags of Problematic Eating

Our relationship with food is undoubtedly complex, and sometimes the lines between healthy and unhealthy eating get blurred. This is because disordered eating falls on a continuum and can develop out of something as benign as a good intention to lose a few pounds and get in shape. While problematic or disordered eating may first appear to be weight-focused, food can also become a coping mechanism for feelings or emotions that may otherwise seem overwhelming. Whether driven by weight, body image or emotions, disordered eating behaviors can damage an individual’s physical and emotional health, self-esteem, sense of confidence and relationship with food. Below are 15 red flags of problematic eating to be aware of:

1. Skipping meals

Skipping a meal (or eliminating food groups) is a means to cut calories, which is why this is one of the first signs of problematic eating. People may see weight loss initially, but this tactic will only work for so long. It will backfire, leading to a reduction in metabolism and/or binge eating (feeling out of control with food) due to physical starvation or hunger.

2. Lack of menstruation

Undereating and/or overexercising can result in interruption of the menstrual cycle and loss of menses. This can be reflective of hormonal imbalances and can affect bone mineral density, resulting in bone loss. While a lack of menses may seem like a blessing rather than a curse, it’s not healthy for the female body and should be evaluated by a doctor.

3. Going to the bathroom after meals 

Bulimia nervosa is characterised by excessive food intake, often in a short period of time, followed by purging behavior. Some people with bulimia nervosa will wait awhile after a meal to purge; however, the urge to purge after a meal or snack can be very strong, thus leading to an escape to the bathroom immediately after eating. It should be noted that individuals struggling with anorexia could also exhibit purging behaviors. Purging isn’t always limited to after a binge, and it could happen after eating very little as a means to rid the body of calories and feelings of fullness.

4. Excessive exercise

Exercise is usually good, but when there is an obligation to exercise in a manner that is causing more harm than good to the body, the line must be drawn. For individuals dealing with bulimia, exercise is often seen as a way to purge or expend calories. If a person is eating very little (and/or engaging in purging behaviors) and exercising to the extreme — such as hours on the treadmill or doing multiple workouts per day — boundaries need to be set. This type of behavior can put the body at risk for stress fractures, dehydration and exhaustion.

5. Not eating in front of others

Fear of judgment and being uncomfortable with food around groups of people can be a symptom of an eating disorder. It’s not uncommon for a person struggling with disordered eating to withdraw from eating out, as it can be challenging to engage in such behavior in public.

6. Use of laxatives, diuretics or diet pills

For those dealing with disordered eating habits, it is not uncommon to abuse laxatives, diuretics and diet pills as a way to “clean out” the body, rid the body of excess or feel less bloated (a common side effect of eating disorders). It’s also not uncommon to see abuse of prescription medications, alcohol, illegal drugs and caffeine combined with disordered eating.

7. Disappearance of a large amount of food in a short period of time

This is a classic symptom of binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa. This may entail an entire jar of peanut butter, box of cookies or loaf of bread that goes missing. This behavior is often used a way to “stuff” emotions in an effort to numb them. If there are any “unsafe” foods or binge foods in the house, it’s wise to make them difficult to access to prevent habitual binges.

8. Hiding food or food wrappers in strange places

Eating disorders are sneaky. It’s not out of the ordinary for loved ones to find food or empty wrappers underneath the bed, stuffed in a bathroom drawer or in the car.

9. Wearing baggy clothes

Body image disturbance is usually an issue with a person struggling with an eating disorder. Wearing clothes that are too big is a way to hide the body for the purpose of security, safety (for those experiencing abuse) and judgment, especially if also engaging in self-harming behaviors.

10. Complaining of constipation or stomach pain

Bloating, stomach cramps and digestive issues can be complications of disordered eating. Eating disorders disrupt the body’s digestive patterns and enzymes, making it harder to break down foods and leading to bloating. Dehydration from purging or limiting intake to prevent “water weight gain” and eating too quickly can also cause stomach troubles. There may also be a connection between gut microbiota and eating disorders, according to current research.

11. Food obsessed but not eating

Obsession with cooking magazines, food blogs, food Pinterest boards, always talking about food and even cooking and baking for others yet not allowing oneself to consume the food are  red flags for disordered eating.

12. Weight fluctuations

Eating disorder sufferers can be overweight, underweight or a normal weight. While some may lose or gain weight, many will actually maintain their weight and appear to be healthy. The weight game is often what keeps people stuck in their eating disorder, mistakenly thinking they aren’t sick enough to get help. If someone is engaging in eating disorder behaviors — regardless of the number on the scale — he or she needs to seek help to recover.

13. Rigid meal plans and food rituals

Eating a specific number of bites of food, chewing food for excessive periods of time, cutting food into small pieces and spitting food out after chewing are all food rituals that coincide with disordered eating. Strict meal plans are another common habit in eating disorders.  

14. Bizarre food combinations

Unusual food concoctions are commonplace for disordered eating, as a result of anxiety and stress with food as well as a change in taste buds with starvation. This can also be seen as excessive use of condiments, hot sauce, pepper and calorie-free sugar substitutes.

15. Fixation on clean eating

This is healthy eating taken to the extreme, or  orthorexia, an eating disorder that has to do with eating clean. Where it goes too far is the person will be so focused on their strict rules of eating clean that many foods begin to get eliminated from the diet. This can interfere with the enjoyment of food and daily functioning — and often results in unhealthy weight loss.

If you (or a loved one) are experiencing any of these red flags, it’s important to take them seriously and reach out for help. MyFitnessPal’s Eating Disorder Resources page and the National Eating Disorders Association are good places to start.

Disordered eating is a slippery slope. It’s important not to keep these behaviors a secret and seek professional help so that you can develop a healthy relationship with food and a healthy body image.

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  • ihuman.

    Thank you for raising awareness <3

  • Jt

    Thank you for posting this. I actually have quite a few of these myself that I’ve been keeping hidden. I think it’s time to talk about it…

  • DuckReconMajor .

    Good god. Why don’t we just go ahead and add calorie counting to the list?

    I’m totally on board with eating disorder awareness, and some of these are legitimate red flags, but the definition of a “healthy relationship” with food gets blurrier with every article written about it.

  • Midwest_Product

    I like how “skipping meals” is on the list, but “eating an entire day’s worth of food in one sitting” isn’t. But hey, Binge Eating Disorder is only the most common eating disorder in America (by a wide, wide margin), so let’s just go ahead and leave it off the list, right?

    • Keith

      You must have skimmed the blog post… AS WRITTEN ABOVE –> Disappearance of a large amount of food in a short period of time. This is a classic symptom of binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa. This may entail an entire jar of peanut butter, box of cookies or loaf of bread that goes missing. This behavior is often used a way to “stuff” emotions in an effort to numb them.

      • HurleyQuinn

        I think their rationale is that the article all but ignores the signs of overeating and binging. They have one thing about this and practically the rest of it is about anorexia and bulimia. I have to say that I’ve seen more people that suffer from compulsive eating than from anorexia, just in my own personal life and on the Internet. Anorexia and bulimia are just the more popular and visible ones to discuss, so focusing solely on that in an article is kind of unhelpful, given the plethora of material that is already available on the warning signs for these two disorders.

  • Kelly Kelly

    Wonderful article touched on every subject i found at least three that I’ve been suffering from for so many years. It’s true that no matter the numbers on the scale we can still have a form of a disorder. I think more awareness needs to be brought out on the issue that you don’t have to be a size zero to have a eating disorder. I used to only eat once a day and it wasn’t nutritious or enjoyed and my bmi and weight were off the charts. I couldn’t understand why I want losing the weight or how my body was storing every calorie I are like a bear getting ready for winter.
    And it’s still hard regardless of what I’ve learned mentally and emotionally very hard not to mention that it’s also compounded with health issues. A step at a time, a meal at a time, a day at a time that’s all we can ask of ourselves and to never give up just don’t give up on yourself. Thanks again also shared with ppl I know could benefit from it

  • Cosmix

    This is a mislabeled article. Could have saved me 5 minutes of reading about people who starve themselves if you had just written “signs of eating disorders”

    • Bob

      This is not about people starving themselves. This is about people who have a real issue that they struggle with daily. It affects their self esteem, their families and can result in death. How about some compassion.

      • Annette Hodge

        I agree with Cosmix. I was expecting to read some about compulsive eating, food addictions, impulse control, not being able to control how much you eat and eating when you are not hungry. This article is the opposite. Starving yourself to be thin would have been a better title.

        • Branagh

          But it isn’t just about starving yourself to be thin?? It also mentions binge-eating and other serious markers of disordered or unhealthy relationships with food or eating, some of which aren’t always discussed and are good to know when examining your own behavior. And could you maybe be less cavalier and insensitive when you talk about such serious problems that people actually do face??

  • Brooke Witham

    Yoga has helped me be calmer woth food

    • LL

      Yes, and mindfulness.

  • missdesiree

    I’m surprised that you did not address those who overeat constantly including those who act shameless about the damage food has done to their bodies. Perhaps food addition? That is problematic as well.

    • LL

      I think labeling people as “shameless” is rather judgemental. People who habitually or compulsively overeat have issues that drive those behaviors, the same way people who purge or starve themselves have issues that drive those behaviors. It helps no one to cast judgement. Probably makes the situation worse.

      • missdesiree

        To point out, I specifically said “act shameless” which still allows for those, as you said who “have other issues”. My context of shameless is to oppose the appearance of shameful behaviors conveyed in this article. Pointing out that there are those who do not exhibit any control versus those who exhibit extreme control. I am just like you, as you have posted, who expected this article more about “overeating”, and I strongly wanted to point that out.

    • Bob

      You have no concept of the struggles compulsive eaters face. They feel huge amounts of shame because of their disease. Shame implies conscious thought – that they made poor choices. There is no choice when the compulsion is driving them. Judgemental people hinder recovery and even having a health, open discussion about eating disorders. OA meetings use the AA Big Book and one of the key principles: no judgement.

      • missdesiree

        Please re-read my comment above with love. I was simply pointing out that there is a category of people that I believe the article did not include. Again, the words, “including” and “act”, points out an example of an overeater, hence not implying to all overeaters. There are multiple types sure with various reasons why but overall there are still “problematic”.

        • Annette Hodge

          Truth!

    • davedave12

      “shameless” is judgmental — delusional would be more factual “I am not overweight I am fit and fat” or “BBW” using the word “curves” to refer to a beach ball shape are examples of delusional statements

  • Linda

    I admit I was expecting this article to be more about overeating than “undereating”, but I appreciate it regardless because it addresses the broader very serious topic of eating disorders. I do wonder about orthorexia, however. Some people with autoimmune disorders exhibit this type of behavior. Is there any way to really diagnose it as one or the other given that some autoimmune disorders are difficult to diagnose and sometimes dismissed as being “in one’s head”.

  • Tori

    What is wrong with “clean eating” and what if you actually have GI issues and feel bloated…

    • Branagh

      I think they mean “clean eating” taken to the point of obsession, where it isn’t in the interest of your health anymore, it’s just an impulsive/compulsive behavior.
      And I think they meant that if you feel bloated or you’re having stomach pains and you either a) don’t have any known GI issues or b) you’re experiencing one or more of the symptoms on this list, then it might indicate eating problems.

  • Lodde Marijukka Johannsen

    Not all who make a bathroom trip after a meal have an eating disorder. Many people (myself included) suffer from IBS-D, so a bathroom trip after eating is pretty normal for a lot of us.

    This article was mislabled, don’t think I will be reading anything more on MyFitnessPal.

    • spikedirt

      I don’t think the article was mislabeled. I don’t think that it implies that everyone has who makes the bathroom trip post meal has an eating disorder. I have UC so I feel you I just disagree. I do agree that you should no longer read anything on MyFitnessPal.

  • John

    And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar… Sorry, but too much of this can be taken out of context. Some of these “red flags” warrant better explanation.

    Going to the bathroom shortly after eating? Not always a red flag. Happens to me after cereal and a cup of coffee – not a disorder.

    Constipation?… Some people suffer with that occasionally. Do they all have eating disorders? I think not.

    A fixation on eating “healthy” or “clean” isn’t orthorexia unless it’s unhealthy. If you only eat clean but you enjoy the way you eat, don’t feel deprived, and get all your macros in a healthy ratio, does that qualify as an eating disorder?

    • Bob

      Good points John. People with eating disorders talk about eating in a bad frame of mind. It doesn’t matter if the food is on their meal plan, the feel they were not abstinent because they ate in a ‘bad’ way. The compulsion overrides the normal brain. However, many of these together are red flags for an eating disorder.

  • Bob

    This is a good article. It touches on many of the issues people with eating disorders struggle with, daily. Their meal plans become so important that they cannot go out with friends because the are not eating abstinent.

    People with eating disorders need understanding and acceptance from those of us who don’t struggle with food. This disease is no different than alcoholism or drug addiction.

  • Ron Burgundy

    …and then?

  • HurleyQuinn

    I clicked on this hoping to read about some of the warning signs for compulsive overeating, but this is almost nonexistent in the article and it’s all but ignored in favor of covering the signs of anorexia and bulimia, which is already fairly well covered. The emphasis here is very heavily on those and unless you were specifically looking for something otherwise, you’d think that this was only about anorexia and bulimia. Compulsive overeating seems to be just as common, if not more so, given the obesity epidemic sweeping North America and much of Europe.

    Here are some of the common signs I’ve seen for compulsive overeating:

    1. The person purchases large quantities of food, especially sugary and fatty foods, very frequently. This food disappears very quickly and without a good explanation to explain the repeated purchases, such as there being other people that eat the food, the food was spoiled, and so on.

    2. The person tries to hide the food and their consumption from others. This can include driving to places outside of their regular patterns and where they live or work, because they don’t want the employees or their friends/family noticing that they repeatedly purchase large amounts of food in a faster than normal manner. This also includes cases where the person decides to hide the food in a drawer, in their closet, or so on, with no reason why they should hide it. Eating alone can also be a sign of this as well.

    3. The person repeatedly tries to justify the reasons for their compulsive eating, such as “I have a genetic disorder where I can’t lose weight”, that they “had a bad day”, or so on – and they make these excuses frequently.

    4. When approached about their eating habits, they grow angry and even secretive.

    5. Person tries to justify their weight gain by arguing that it’s that society isn’t into “real men/women”, that they’re retaining water, that you’re shaming them, and so on.

    6. The person tries to get others to overeat with them, even going so far as to sabotage other’s diets so that they don’t get skinny before them.

    There are more than this, but this is what I’ve witnessed and experienced myself over time. I know that I’ve done some of these in the past because I wanted to hide my compulsive overeating. These might not always be a sign of compulsive overeating, but they are something to look at if this is accompanied by signs of depression and steady unhealthy weight gain.

    • Tan Tilve

      Great points!

  • Anthony Savage

    Cosmix,
    I too thought the article title was somewhat misleading. What do the experts think about the following food practices?:
    – frequently eating at your desk
    – frequently eating while driving
    – eating in bed
    – eating in front off the television
    – eating with others to be social, even if you aren’t hungry
    – shopping for quantity over quality
    – compulsively clearing a dinner plate after feeling satiated
    – repeatedly purchasing too much food (food waste)
    Conversely, are the following not considered a good relationship with food?:
    – skipping meals because you simply aren’t hungry
    – weight fluctuations of 3-7 lbs in a week (can be caused by exercise)
    – unusual food combinations because you like them or are a teenager

  • Casey Dean

    Several of these points are not signs of eating disorders in most people. And, there are claims in this article that are not backed up by science.

    • WhiskeyRocks

      Ironic comment from a fat person with no self-respect or self-discipline.

    • WhiskeyRocks

      You’re breathtakingly stupid.

  • Renee Benson

    The point of this article is to point out problems (compulsions) in an individuals eating behavior. Not poor choices by a person who wants a third cheeseburger.
    Eating disorders are real and most individuals instead of offering help to a person suffering they judge, belittle, and condemn them.
    These horrible disorders can perminatly harm and/or kill a person. Saying “don’t feel that way” or “make better choices” or “well then just stop” have no idea what is happening inside the afflicted. Would you say that to a person with cancer? With an infection? With another illness outside of their control? NO BECAUSE IT IS NOT AN OPTION TO CONTROL IT OR WE WOULD NOT HAVE ANY ILLNESS OR DISEASE!!!
    Eating disorders are considered a mental illness. This article is is calling attention to behaviors that are symptoms of mental illness

  • Danelle Jackson

    Some of these behaviors are totally OK. I tell my obese patients that in order to lose weight and maintain the loss you pretty much have to become neurotic about food/calories – either on your own by tracking in awesome programs like MFP or WW…or because you’re forced to after a bariatric surgery. Clean eating and rigid meal plans are really helpful for food addicts. Of course, moderation is the key to life.