A few other key signs to look out for: “If you’re not able to engage with friends in the way you want, or you’re turning down plans because you need to exercise, or you work out even when you’re sick, or you’re afraid to go out to eat—then it’s time to get help,” Jenn Burnell, MS, RD, a dietitian and certified eating disorder specialist based in Raleigh, North Carolina, tells SELF.
2. Get a clinical assessment.
Whether or not you have a diagnosable eating disorder, it’s important to seek out someone who specializes in these conditions. “Unfortunately, the average doctor, dietitian, or therapist probably doesn’t know how to screen for or diagnose an eating disorder,” Kelli Rugless, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and certified eating disorder specialist based in Beverly Hills, tells SELF. “If you go to your regular provider for help,” she adds, “there’s a good chance you won’t get the care you deserve, particularly if your weight is ‘normal’ or above ‘normal,’ per BMI standards.” (This is yet another reason why the body mass index (BMI) is bullshit as a measure of health, and why there’s really no such thing as a “normal” or “abnormal” weight.)
Anecdotally, I can attest to this. I’ve had many clients tell me their primary care doctor either ignored or encouraged their restriction, or that their therapist never asked about their relationship with food and their body. “I’m amazed by how many people have a therapist who they’ve never talked to before about this issue, because of shame or because they don’t feel like it’s valid,” Knight says.
You can schedule a free clinical assessment with an eating disorder specialist through Project Heal here. Or you can search for one in your area via online directories. A couple of great options: the National Alliance for Eating Disorders (NAED) and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP). (Note that while dietitians who specialize in eating disorders are an important part of treatment, they can’t legally diagnose you—only a licensed therapist or medical provider, such as a psychiatrist or primary care doctor, can do that.)
Once you’ve had a professional evaluation, the right type of expert(s) to help you heal will depend on your specific needs. If you are ultimately diagnosed with an eating disorder, for example, a typical treatment team includes a therapist, a dietitian, a primary care provider, and sometimes a psychiatrist. Overwhelming, I know, but the provider who does your initial assessment should be able to help you figure out the next steps and connect you with other specialists. And a therapist from NAED’s helpline can also point you in the right direction.
3. No matter the results of your assessment, try to meet regularly with an eating disorder specialist (or a team of experts).
“Not having a diagnosis doesn’t necessarily change much when it comes to seeking help,” says Burnell, who works as a senior outreach manager for Monte Nido and Affiliates eating disorder treatment programs. The specifics of your recovery plan may differ depending on your individual struggles, of course, but at the end of the day, the goal is the same: to prevent your eating habits from disrupting your life. (That said, there could be differences in your insurance coverage for various services, depending on whether you have a diagnosis or not. Many plans cover therapy and dietitian services without one, for example, but some don’t.)