Helping Someone With Eating Disorder

Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder

A recent Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) survey found that 76% of 939 students surveyed reported some dissatisfaction with their weight. U-M students reported that eating disorders were the second most common problem among students who took the survey.

Nationally, approximately 10 million women and 1 million men are struggling with symptoms of an eating disorder.

The term eating disorder includes the following:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: a disruption in eating habits characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, restrictive eating, weight loss and low body weight that is physically unhealthy, and feeling fat even though underweight.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: a cycle of uncontrolled binge eating followed by purging behaviors such as vomiting, fasting, excessive exercise, and/or laxative and diuretic use.
  • Compulsive Overeating: often referred to as “Binge Eating”. Similar to bulimia, binge eating involves seemingly out-of-control periods of eating large amounts of food. Unlike bulimia, people who binge-eat tend to refrain from purging behaviors.

While some students meet the criteria for one of these eating disorders, many students do not. However, an eating disorder is more likely for those that experience daily issues with food, weight, and body image that significantly affect their mood, self-esteem, and relationships.

Issues may include:

  • Punishing exercise regimes that focus on weight loss rather than health and wellness. Working out even when feeling sick or in need of rest.
  • Preoccupation with food and caloric intake. Food gets divided into “good” and “bad” categories, and “bad foods” are avoided or else eaten with feelings of guilt, shame, and promises to diet or work out immediately.
  • Self worth is measured by weight on the scale. Often this includes weighing oneself several times a day. Weight fluctuations significantly impact mood where an increase of 1 or 2 pounds can trigger depression or anxiety.
  • Self-loathing when strict food regimes or diets are not followed.
  • Loss of joy, happiness, and a decreased investment in interests and relationships.
  • Avoiding activities, friends, or social events due to feeling fat and unattractive.
  • Constant comparison of body shapes to other people that result in feeling unattractive. Social comparisons can also result in competition among friends for the “best body”.
  • Social relationships center around “food talk” i.e., how many calories were ingested, how many calories were burned during a workout, and dieting goals.
  • Chronic dissatisfaction with body size and shape that results in low self esteem. Leading a “double life” due to hiding eating behaviors from partners, friends, or family out of fear of rejection or criticism.
  • A contagion effect within friendship circles where one member of a group begins dieting, which leads other members to feel anxious about their own weight and body shape. Dieting and body dissatisfaction seem to become a new norm within the group.

Seeing a loved one suffer with an eating disorder is not an easy thing and helping them yourself can be difficult. Eating concerns are treatable issues and addressing them through mental health interventions can help one gain a sense of peace with their eating and body image. Encouraging your friend to seek help and being supportive, even accompanying them to therapy, can be the most important way of helping them.