How To Help A Friend Who May Have An Eating Disorder


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Eating disorder

According to The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will have a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified. As many of us know, this is an issue on college campuses as well. According to Fox News, it’s been on the rise for quite some time: in 1995, 23 percent of women and 8 percent of men on college campuses were impacted by eating disorders; by 2008, those figures had increased to 32 percent of women and 10 percent of men. And while we don’t want to admit it, sororities can have a negative effective – studies, such as Averrett, Terrizzi and Wang (2013) have found a correlation between sorority membership and higher instances of eating disorders.

Given the increase in college students being affected by eating disorders, it’s very possible that you may know someone who is having difficulties with body image issues and/or an eating disorder. It’s even possible that it may have been me; there was a point in my life that I struggled with binge eating disorder – and I didn’t even know that was an actual thing until it landed me in the hospital. After surgery to remove my gallbladder, which I had damaged beyond repair, a number of my friends told me they had noticed I was having issues with food, but they didn’t know how to talk to me about it. Unfortunately, this is often the case with many mental health issues, including eating disorders. We want to tell a friend that we are concerned about them, but we simply don’t know how. Luckily, there are a lot of resources out there that can help. And while this certainly isn’t meant to be an end-all/be-all guide, it’s a good place to start, particularly since that this week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

1. Know the Signs

Unless a friend specifically tells you they have an eating disorder, there is no way you can know for sure. However, according to, there are a number of signs that may indicate that a friend is having a problem. These include:
• Preoccupation with body or weight
• Obsession with calories, food, or nutrition
• Constant dieting, even when thin
• Rapid, unexplained weight loss or weight gain
• Taking laxatives or diet pills
• Compulsive exercising
• Making excuses to get out of eating
• Avoiding social situations that involve food
• Going to the bathroom right after meals
• Eating alone, at night, or in secret
• Hoarding high-calorie food

Again, there is no way to know if a friend has an eating disorder unless he or she tells you explicitly, but these could be indicators of some kind of an issue.

2. Plan the Conversation

If you are noticing signs that lead you to believe a friend may be struggling with an eating disorder, your instinct may be to stage some kind of intervention or confrontation in an effort to get them the assistance they need. And while your goal is obviously to help because you care about them, you need to be very careful about how to approach this conversation – the who, where, when, and how are all very important. If you need help on how to approach your friend and discuss your concerns with them, there are lots of resources available. Some of the best ones I found:
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders How to Help Guide
Columbia University Medical Center – Helping Students with Eating Problems
Caltech Counseling Center – Eating Disorders
Villanova Student Life – Eating Disorders: Helping a Friend

3. Debunk the Myths

Before you even attempt to have a conversation with someone you believe may have an eating disorder, it’s important that you take the time to learn more about the disorders themselves. There are many common misconceptions about eating disorders. These include such fallacies as:
• Eating disorders are not serious
• They are a lifestyle choice or about vanity, not an illness
• Binge Eating Disorder is not as “serious” as bulimia or anorexia
• Extreme “Dieting” is a normal part of life
• Eating disorders are a cry for attention or a person ‘going through a phase’
• Eating disorders only affect females
• You can tell if someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them

Before you attempt to assist a friend, take the time to educate yourself about eating disorders and in particular the myths that surround them – you may be surprised that some things you took to be ‘facts’ aren’t really true at all. A great place to start is The National Eating Disorder Information Centre’s definitions page.

4. Gather Resources For Them

For someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, taking the first step to get professional treatment can be difficult. One way that you can help your friend make this important step is to gather resources for him or her, so they are readily available when they decide they is ready to get help. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre has a hotline that can provide assistance, as does The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA); NEDA also has an online chat and a system to find support in your area.

5. Take Action

Want to do more to spread the word about eating disorders on campus or in your community? The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) launched the Collegiate Survey Project in response to the rising rates of eating disorders among men and women on college campuses. Conducted at 165 participating colleges and universities, they found that “greater funding and resources are needed on college campuses to educate, screen and treat students struggling with eating disorders. According to the survey, access to education, screenings, and mental health resources are critical for early detection and prevention efforts, as well as encouraging affected individuals to seek proper treatment.” So get involved in the effort on campus to increase awareness around eating disorders, and not just during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, but all year round.

If you (or someone you know) are struggling with an eating disorder, call (630)-577-1330, email, or visit the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website and helpline for more information.

To take a confidential, eating disorder screening created by the National Eating Disorders Association, click here.

Image via Shutterstock

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