There are two main questions people usually ask about the early stages of eating disorders: how they begin and what causes them. These two questions are actually quite intertwined, since what motivates a person to begin developing an eating disorder can influence what the first red flags will be.
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"It's Just a Diet"
When you're dealing with eating disorders, how they begin is often hard to recognize. After all, a large percentage of people these days seem to be on diets, and what could be wrong with a diet? In truth, many people who later develop eating disorders to start off just dieting. But what happens afterwards can lead to the development of an eating disorder, specifically anorexia or bulimia.
When these people get positive attention for losing weight, it reinforces their desire to lose more weight, and more weight. This can make weight loss a focal point in their lives, and they will be willing to stop at almost nothing to attain it - from eating next to nothing and exercising obsessively, to taking laxatives and inducing vomiting. At the start of an eating disorder, you may notice other symptoms of eating disorders, such as slowly becoming more and more obsessed with weight, secretive during mealtimes, and constantly talking about weight loss and dieting.
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"I Need to Feel in Control"
Eating disorders can also begin when they feel that they want to control their surroundings as much as possible. Restricting food and monitoring weight or body size becomes a way to compensation for the inability to control the other areas of the person's life. For other people, the desire to eat when they are not really hungry can give them an "out of control" feeling, which they then try to control by binging and purging, exercising excessively, or going on unhealthy diets. All of these lay the groundwork for eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. As someone begins going down this path, you may notice them making charts, going through complex rituals involving foods, and spending a lot of time obsessing about food and exercise plans.
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"Food Makes Me Happy"
Ideally, food should be a source of energy with a side dose of pleasure. For many people, however, food is primarily a source of comfort and a way in which they can deal with the anxieties of life. If you see someone who seems to view food this way, it could be a red flag that the person is at risk of an eating disorder, such as compulsive eating or bulimia. These people may eat to ward of depression, loneliness, boredom, anger, or stress. Constantly buying into this attitude can lead to overeating and becoming "addicted" to food. While compulsive eaters stop there, bulimics feel shame when they overeat and try to treat themselves by purging after a binge. If someone you know begins hoarding food in strange places, thinking about food excessively, and eating to excess often, it may be the beginning of an eating disorder, specifically compulsive eating or bulimia.
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"I Was Abused"
People who have been abused - physically, emotionally, or sexually - can also begin to develop an eating disorder, especially compulsive overeating. They may feel a void inside of them that they feel the need to fill, and they fill it with food. They may also subconsciously want to become as fat as possible to make themselves unattractive and protect themselves from future abuse (particularly in the case of sexual abuse).
Although there are several possible contributors to a person developing eating disorders, how they begin is important to know. If you understand which signs to look for, you can recognize someone you know who may be developing an eating disorder and get him or her help needed to control it.