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Recognising Behaviours of Different Eating Disorders

Struggling with an eating disorder can have a highly negative impact on a person’s daily life, yet it is not something that can be easily fixed, since eating disorders are predominantly a matter of the mind, more so than they are of the body.

Eating disorders can affect people at any age, but it is typical for them to develop during adolescence. This is not helped by popular media, where it is all too common to see people with ‘perfect’ bodies and praising restrictive diets, alongside tabloids often being all too quick to comment on a person’s appearance, weight or body - all of which can influence people’s perception of themselves and their own physical appearance, especially that of impressionable adolescents.

Not only can eating disorders have dangerous and unhealthy physical effects on the body, but they often occur alongside mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. These struggles combined can greatly diminish someone’s quality of life, which is why it is important they be treated as soon as possible.

We’ve listed below the most common eating disorders, explaining what they are and the symptoms and behaviours that are typically associated with them.

girl with bulimia feeling alone

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa, or anorexia as it is commonly referred to, is considered an eating disorder and serious mental health condition.

The most common and well-known symptom of someone who suffers with anorexia is being severely underweight. What differentiates it from other conditions that cause severe weight loss is that the person will actively do all they can in order to stay at as low a weight as possible.

This is often due to having a distorted perception of their body image, whereby they believe that they are overweight despite being healthy or underweight.

Anorexia can be indicated by the following physical symptoms:

  • Your height and weight being lower than expected for your age (if you’re under 18)

  • Having an unusually low body mass index (BMI) (if you’re an adult)

  • Your periods stopping (in women who haven’t reached menopause) or not starting (in younger women and girls)

  • Struggling with light-headedness or dizziness

  • Hair loss or dry skin

  • Bloating, constipation and abdominal pain

  • Headaches

  • Feeling cold and developing fine, downy hair growing on the body (this is usually your body’s way of trying to keep you warm due to a lack of fat storage)

  • Feeling very tired

  • Poor circulation in hands and feet

  • Reduced libido

As for the behaviours someone with anorexia may partake in, these can differ from person to person and can range in severity. Common behavioural signs of anorexia can include any of the following:

  • Missing meals, eating very little or avoiding eating foods you see as fattening

  • Lying about your weight, as well as when and what you’ve eaten

  • Taking appetite suppressants

  • Excessively exercising

  • Making yourself sick or using medicine to help you poop (laxatives) or pee (diuretics) - some people with anorexia will try to expel fluids such as these from their bodies in belief it will help them to avoid putting on weight

  • An overwhelming fear of gaining weight

  • Strict rituals surrounding your eating habits

  • Seeing your weight loss as a positive thing, due to having a distorted body image

  • Refusing to admit that your weight loss is serious and making you unwell

When it comes to spotting the signs of anorexia in someone else, the behaviours on this list aren’t always easily noticeable, especially when someone actively tries to hide them.

If you are worried about someone’s health and believe it could be anorexia, there are some more nuanced behaviours you could look for along with dramatic weight loss, such as if the avoid eating with others, cut their food into small pieces, push it around their plate or eat it very slowly to disguise how little they’re really eating. They may also try to hide how thin they are by wearing loose or baggy clothing.

You can learn more about the health risks and potential causes of anorexia here.


Bulimia is similar to anorexia in a number of ways, since people who suffer with this eating disorder also often struggle with self-esteem regarding their body image and weight and will actively try to avoid putting any weight on. However, the key difference between the two is that people who suffer with bulimia often experience cycles of binge eating.

Binge eating is when you eat a large amount of food over a very short time, often in a way that feels out-of-control. If you’re bulimic, then you will follow this binge by trying to rid your body of the extra food, which is what’s known as purging - commonly by making yourself be sick. This is a vicious cycle, often triggered by hunger, stress or sadness.

Once stuck in the binge-purge cycle, it can be extremely difficult to escape it, since you may set yourself strict rules regarding your eating habits, dieting or exercise regime, and failure to stick to such rules can lead to this shame or stress that results in excessive eating. The guilt of doing so will then lead to you purging to get rid of the calories, which leaves you feeling hungry again, thus the cycle continues.

Bulimia can result in some physical symptoms, such as:

  • Feeling tired (often from not having enough time to absorb enough of the nutrients or calories from any food being eaten)

  • Having a sore throat from vomiting so often

  • Bloating and/or stomach pain

  • Swelling in the face as a result of self-induced vomiting

  • Behavioural signs are more common with bulimia, and can include the following:

  • Fear of putting on weight

  • Being very obsessive and critical about your weight and bodily appearance

  • Thinking about food a lot

  • Feeling guilty and ashamed, especially regarding your eating habits

  • Avoiding social activities that involve food

  • Feeling as though you have little to no control over your eating

  • Making yourself vomit, using laxatives or excessively exercising after bingeing

It can be hard to spot signs of bulimia in someone else, since their weight loss is often not as extreme, sudden or noticeable as it is in people with anorexia, and since bulimic behaviours are often very secretive. If you notice that someone eats a lot of food very fast, tends to go to the bathroom immediately or not long after eating or excessively or obsessively exercises, then these can be indicators that they are bulimic.

You can learn more about the health risks and potential causes of bulimia here.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is somewhat similar to bulimia in that it involves episodes of binge eating, however the difference is that these episodes are not followed by any form of purging.

It is common for people with binge eating disorder to plan their binges in advance; these are often done alone and may include ‘special’ binge foods. This episode is often followed by feelings of shame or guilt.

Unlike anorexia and bulimia, there aren’t any particular physical symptoms of binge eating disorder, other than putting on weight, but this does not happen to everyone who suffers with this disorder. There are, however, behavioural signs associated with binge eating disorder.

These commonly include:

  • Eating when not hungry

  • Eating very fast during a binge

  • Eating alone or secretly

  • Storing supplies of food

  • Feeling depressed, guilty, ashamed or disgusted with yourself after a binge

Since binge eating disorder tends to involve very secretive behaviour and cannot easily be noticed through physical symptoms, it can be incredibly hard to spot if someone is struggling with this disorder. If you notice that someone tries to hide how much they’re eating, stores up supplies of food or see them eat a lot of food very quickly, then these could all be potential indicators.

You can read more about the causes of binge eating here.

How to Treat Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can be treated in a variety of ways, however one particular form of treatment that can be used with all three of the aforementioned disorders is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This is a form of therapy in which a therapist will discuss your thoughts and feelings surrounding your eating habits and challenge these negative thought processes, helping you to adopt a healthier way of thinking and managing your feelings.

Since it is most common for eating disorders to develop during adolescence, there can be more tailored approaches when it comes to counselling young people. A counselling children and young people diploma can be used to learn how to address topics such as eating disorders as well as anxiety and depression, along with other issues that are likely to be affecting them at the same time (e.g. bullying or parents separating). This can make it easier to understand and approach the treatment of their eating disorder in a more sensitive way.

Key Counselling Training

If you’re a trained therapist looking to expand your knowledge further to better understand eating disorders and/or counselling children, then consider doing a CPD workshop with Key Counselling Training.

We offer a number of workshops and counselling training courses (including CBT therapy training) for established therapists looking to specialise in certain areas, or aspiring counsellors.

Get in touch with us today for more information about the workshops and courses we offer and how to enrol.


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