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How to recognise the early signs of an eating disorder

Brian Mackenzie identifies the warning signals of disordered eating.

Prevention is the key to addressing the problem of disordered eating, and education is a necessary first step. Athletes, parents, coaches, athletic administrators, training staff and doctors need to be educated about the risks and warning signals of disordered eating.

Warning signs

Johnson (1994)[1] identifies the following checklist of warning signs:

  • A preoccupation with food, calories and weight
  • Repeated expressed concerns about being or feeling fat, even when weight is average, or below average
  • Increasing criticism of one's body
  • Secretly eating, or stealing food
  • Eating large meals, then disappearing, or making trips to the bathroom
  • Consumption of large amounts of food not consistent with the athlete's weight
  • Bloodshot eyes, especially after trips to the bathroom
  • Swollen parotid glands at the angle of the jaw, giving a chipmunk-like appearance
  • Vomiting, or odour of vomiting in the bathroom
  • Wide fluctuations in weight over short periods
  • Periods of severe calorie restriction
  • Excessive laxative use
  • Compulsive, excessive exercise that is not part of the athlete's training regimen
  • Unwillingness to eat in front of others (e.g. teammates on road trips)
  • Expression of self-deprecating thoughts following eating
  • Wearing layered or baggy clothing
  • Mood swings
  • Appearing preoccupied with the eating behaviour of others
  • Continuous drinking of diet soda or water

If you are concerned that someone you know may be suffering from an eating disorder, you need to go softly in approaching them about it. People who are truly anorexic or bulimic will often deny the problem, insisting that there is nothing wrong. Share your concerns about physical symptoms such as lightheadedness, chronic fatigue or lack of concentration. These health changes are more likely to be stepping stones for accepting help. Do not discuss weight or eating habits directly. Avoid mentioning starving/bingeing as the issue and focus on life concerns. Offer a list of sources of professional help.

Although the athlete may deny the problem to your face, they may secretly be desperate for help.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2006) How to recognise the early signs of an eating disorder. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 29 / February), p. 11


  1. JOHNSON, M. (1994) Disordered Eating in Active and Athletic Women. Clinics in Sportsmedicine, 13 (2), p. 357-369

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2006) How to recognise the early signs of eating disorder [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.