Have you noticed a friend not eating around others? Does someone you know head to the bathroom after every meal? Has your friend recently started a new, restrictive, “clean” diet? Does someone you know express how they want to look different physically? Is your friend excessively working out to lose weight?
Eating disorders exist in many forms, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa being two of the most common. There is also compulsive binge eating disorder that exists. Eating disorders can begin as “just dieting” or the desire to eat healthy, but progress into something much worse over time. Eating disorders take full force between the ages of 18 and 21, with 32% of college females and 25% of college males per a NEDA survey in 2013 1(National Eating Disorder Association, 2013). Among students, it is often an unintentional progression into an eating disorder from a fad diet or result of another underlying mental health issue. Other times, it is body dysmorphia, the inaccurate view of their own body size. In either case, it is important to express concern and provide resources. Here’s a list of ways to do just that.
1. Educate yourself on eating disorders.
Eating disorders manifest differently in different people. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has reported anorexia nervosa has been consistently increasing in women among ages of 15 to 24 years old. Anorexia nervosa is the obsession over losing weight and what is eaten. Bulimia nervosa is the disorder of losing weight through self-induced vomiting after overeating or eating in general. Binge eating disorder is compulsive eating, where one finds it extremely difficult to stop and then has shame about it. It is important to know the differences between these and the serious health consequences and long-term impacts of each.
2. Recognize the signs.
Once you’ve done some research and gained some knowledge about eating disorders, it will be easier to recognize some common signs and symptoms. Signs of eating disorders are both behavioral and physical, since disrupting the body’s normal functioning and need for food will inevitably affect their physical appearance. Some common signs according to NEDA include restricting what they eat, frequently pointing out their flaws in their appearance or body size, being uncomfortable eating around other people, noticeable fluctuations in weight, dry skin and hair, feeling tired all the time, dramatic weight loss, hiding food in strange places, and others. Recognizing signs and expressing concern early on can minimize the long-term impacts or health complications and potentially save their life.
3. Be an active piece of their support system throughout the recovery process.
Supporting a friend with an eating disorder is an ongoing task. Actively speak about the issue when it arises and let them know you are there to support them, free of judgement. Encourage them to talk to someone about it, even if it’s not you.
4. Talk openly about how they are feeling and what they need to get connected to the right people to help.
In order to open up about or admit they have an eating disorder, they need to feel comfortable talking about it with you. By making it clear you are there to support them, they will feel comfortable enough to open up about their feelings and behaviors they participate in for their eating disorder. They may also speak about how it began and when, so that you can better understand where to guide them next.
5. Utilize the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
The Crisis text line, available at 741741, can be used in all areas of crisis. It is a free resource that even those struggling with eating disorders can reach out to counselors on the matter through. Have them use the Crisis Text Line to express themselves through text at their convenience, no pressure.
6. Look up resources together.
It can be scary to think about reaching out for help or even admitting to themselves they have an eating disorder. Once you’ve spoken openly with them about it, find some local resources through your state’s health department or the NEDA websites. Doing this together will show you support them in their journey of recovery and might make them more inclined to seek help after learning about what is available to them.
7. Call, chat or text with the National Eating Disorder Association hotline. (Not 24/7).
NEDA gives free access to their own helpline through a website chat, text or phone call Monday through Friday. The helpline is free to use for the person with the disorder or for you, a concerned friend, to find resources, provide counseling over the phone and explore treatment options to get them the help they need. The helpline also allows messages to be left and the trained volunteers will return the call the next time they are open. Consider the helpline to get treatment options and specific resources and counseling for their specific eating disorder.
8. Seek professional help and treatment options.
After all accessible resources have been found, encourage them in professional counseling, seeing their general practitioner and whatever treatment they need. Eating disorders can cause imbalances in blood work, nutritional deficiencies, heart conditions, and other mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety. Eating disorders are not limited to the relationship with food and eating, they are all inclusive of the emotional, mental and physical well-being. Support them in treatment, whether it be medications, nutritionist counseling, therapy, or even attending a rehabilitation facility.
9. Do some activity not centered around food or their eating disorder.
If you are concerned about a friend having an eating disorder, don’t choose activities like cooking class or hosting a dinner party. Maybe choose takeout instead of eating at the restaurant. Public eating or putting pressure on them can make them uncomfortable and less likely to attend. Don’t always have food plans because you want them to eat or you’re trying to “decide” whether or not they have an eating disorder. Instead, try activities that make them see what their control over food and obsession over food have made them miss out on. You don’t want to put them in a situation they feel shameful in or all eyes are on them.
10. Be a role model.
Show them you are willing to talk to resources and helplines for them or with them. Don’t talk about the flaws you see in yourself or appearance or obsess over a new fad diet you want to try. Be a role model around them, choosing to promote healthy eating and well-balanced diets. Promote mental health wellness and physical wellness check-ups. Most importantly, do not judge them, instead celebrate their successes and achievements no matter how small. Be encouraging.
- National Eating Disorder Association. (2013, February). Eating Disorders on the College Campus. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/sites/default/files/CollegeSurvey/CollegiateSurveyProject.pdf