Recognizing and Responding to Eating Disorders

Recognizing an Eating Disorder:

Eating disorders involve extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. Many people with eating disorders work hard to keep them a secret so they can be hard to spot.  However, there are signs that you should be aware of.  If your friend has an eating disorder, he or she may exhibit an intense fear of gaining weight or an obsession with dieting, become withdrawn and secretive especially about food, and spend less time with family and friends. There are also signs specific to the type of eating disorder that one is suffering from:

A person with anorexia may:

  • Eat only "safe" foods, low in calories and fat.
  • Have odd rituals, such as cutting food into small pieces or measuring food.
  • Exercise to excess.
  • Dress in layers to hide weight loss.
  • Skip meals and give excuses like “I already ate”.

A person with bulimia may:

  • Keep making trips to the bathroom after eating.
  • Steal food or hoard it in strange places.
  • Eat to excess.

Tips for Response:

If your friend is suffering from an eating disorder, he or she will need to seek help from a professional.  However, people with eating disorders are frequently resistant to this idea. When you speak to them about it, try to:

  • Share specific examples of times that you were concerned about his or her eating behavior
  • Be patient and non-confrontational if they deny the problem or become angry
  • Remind them that you are willing to be an open and supportive listener
  • Avoid offering solutions
  • Understand that an eating disorder is a coping strategy often used to deal with problems that are too painful to deal with directly
  • Encourage the person to see themselves as more than just their eating disorder by talking about other aspects of their lives
  • Avoid commenting on how they look and saying things like “but you’re not fat”
  • Suggest that your friend should see a professional and let them know about the resources available at Student Counseling Service (SCS). 

The National Eating Disorder Association can provide you with additional information on this important topic.