How To Help Someone With An Eating Disorder

Food Matters: How To Help Someone With An Eating Disorder

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We live in a society that encourages overindulgence in just about anything that can be consumed, including food. At the same time, we place an emphasis on being thin and fit. This double message causes many of us to have conflicts about food and body image.

Many of us set very high standards for ourselves which we can't always achieve. For some people abusive eating patterns begin in response to feelings of anxiety, frustration or disappointment. Although these eating patterns seem to offer a temporary solution, they lead to more pressures in the long run.

Not everyone who goes on a diet or eats too much pizza on Friday night has an eating disorder. Some experts describe a continuum of eating behaviors with normal eating patterns at one end and severe eating disorders on the other end. People frequently more back and fourth alone this continuum.

The commonly recognized eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia
  • Chronic dieting
  • Compulsive overeating

Why Can't People With Eating Disorders Just Stop?

People develop problem eating patterns for a variety of reasons:

  • Fear of weight gain
  • Response to family problems
  • Anxieties about sexuality
  • Pressures to succeed; fear of failure

At first, the eating behavior might provide a feeling of comfort, solace or control. Binging numbs distressing feelings. Purging might begin as a way to relieve physical discomfort after a binge or as a way to avoid weight gain. Eventually it provides a sense of control. With time the eating behavior can become addictive with the accompanying feelings if loss of control, shame, isolation and low self-esteem.

How Do I Recognize That Someone Has an Eating Disorder?

Some possible eating disorders are:

  • Frequent changes in, and constant talking about weight
  • Preoccupation with food, nutrition or dieting
  • Sever weight loss
  • Face looks pale, hair is limp
  • Wears layers of clothing or baggy, loose-fitting clothes
  • Complains frequently of the cold
  • Faints, blacks out, has dizzy spells, difficulty concentrating
  • Seems sad, angry, irritable
  • Isolates self
  • Makes frequent trips to the bathroom
  • Takes long, frequent showers
  • Skips meals, cuts food into small pieces or eats large quantities of food
  • Steals food or money

What Will Happen If the Eating Disorder Continues?

Some medical/psychological consequences of eating disorders are:

  • Loss of menstruation
  • Excessive constipation
  • Loss of head hair
  • Growth of fine body hair
  • Swollen and/or infected salivary glands
  • Bursting blood vessels in the eyes
  • Damaged teeth and gums
  • Dehydration and kidney failure
  • Electrolyte imbalance leading to hear problems
  • Insomnia
  • Low self-esteem
  • Guilt
  • Depression or loneliness
  • Death

How Do I Help?

Be direct: Clearly stated, honest concern is the best approach. If the person's behavior directly affects you (you hear them vomiting, they've stolen food or money, etc.), tell them about it in an objective, nonjudgmental way. Use "I" messages. For example, "I care about the fact that you..." Stay focused on what you've observed and how you eel about it. Don't attack or tell the person what's "wrong" with them.

Listen carefully: You want to encourage discussion of what they are feeling and doing. Careful listening involves asking questions, using attentive body language and paraphrasing the speaker's words to show you understand them.

Keep and open mind: You want to explore the possibility that the person has an eating problem in a way that minimizes defensiveness. Think about your own attitudes towards food, body image and eating disorders. Be careful not to blame, label or judge. Learning about eating disorders is another way to keep an open mind.

Assist with referral: The person with an eating disorder may feel isolated, hopeless or trapped. Help give them hope. Encourage them to get professional help. If necessary, gather information about local resources and facilitate making an appointment.

Be prepared for denial: The person may not be ready to hear your concern or to admit they have a problem. Presenting them with specific examples of their problem eating behavior sometimes helps to break through denial but not always. Accept the fact that you may not see immediate results on your intervention. Consult with a professional if you have any concern about the person's safety.

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What Help Is Available?

On-Campus Resources
Health Services
Nutritionist Appointments
Medical Appointments
Counseling Center
Eating Concerns Program (individual and group counseling)
Health Education (to schedule a workshop or obtain additional information)
Local Off-Campus Help
Overeaters Anonymous Hotline (call for local meeting times; free, but donations requested)
UMass Drop-in Group
549-2671 x181

National Resources
American Anorexia and Bulimia Association, Inc.
133 Cedar Lane
Teaneck, NJ 07666
(201) 836-1800
Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
P.O. Box 271
Highland Park, IL 60035
(312) 837-3438
Bulimia Anorexia Self-Help Hotline
(800) 227-4785

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Anorexia Nervosa
Crisp, A.M., Anorexia Nervosa: Let Me Be, NY. Academic Press, Grune and Stratton, 1980.
O'Neil, C.B., Starving for Attention, NY, Continuum Books, 1982.
Slade, Roger, Anorexia Nervosa Reference Book: Direct and Clear Answers to Everyone's Questions, London and New York, Haprer and Row, 1984.
Stein, P and Urelle, B., Anorexia Nervosa: Finding the Life Line, Carlsland,CA, Gruze Books, 1985
Cauwels, J.M., Bulimia: The Binge/Purge Compulsion, NY Doubleday, 1983
Constock, N. ed. Experiencing Bulimia, Amherst, MA, University Health Services, 1986

Hall, L. and Cohn, L., Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery, Carlsbald, CA, Gruze Books, 1986.

Roth, G., Feeding the Hungry Heart, NY, NAL, 1982
Stuart, M. and Orr, L., Otherwise Perfect, FL, Health Communications, Inc., 1987.
Women, Culture and Eating
Chernin, K., The obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, NY, Harper and Row, 1982
Chernin, K., The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity, NY, Random House, 1985
Dowling, C., The Cinderalla Complex: A Woman's Hidden Fear of Independence, NY, Summit Books, 1981.
Orbach, S., Hunger Strike: The Anorectic's Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age, NY, W.W., Nortown, 1985.
Body Shape / Eating Habits
Bennett, W. and Gruin, J., The Dieter's Dilemma, Eating Less and Weighing More, NY, Basic Books, 1982.
Brody, J., The Nutrition Book, NY, Basic Books, 1982.
Vincent L.M., Completing with the Sylph: Dancers and the Pursuit of the ideal Body Form, Kansas and NY, Andrews/McCMeel, 1979.
Family Dynamics
Erichsen, A., Anorexia Nervosa: The Broken Circle, Boston, Faber and Faber, 1985 (from a mother's perspective).
Hollia, Judi, Fat is a Family Affair, NY, Harper and Row, 1985.
Minuchin, S., Family Kaleidoscope, Cambridge, Harvard university Press, 1984.
Palazzoli, M.S., Self-Starvation: From Individual to Family in the Treatment of Anorexia Nervosa, NY, Jason Aronson, 1982.
Hampshire, E., Freedom From Food, Carlsbad, CA, Gurze Books, 1986.
Kano, S., Making Peace with Food, Allston, MA, Amity Publishing, 1985.
Kinoy, B.P. and the Book Committee of the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association, NJ, When Will We Laugh Again? NY, Columbia University Press, 1984.
Roth, G., Break Free From Compulsive Eating, NY, NAL, 1985.
Other Pamphlets in the Series
Food Matters: How To Help Someone With An Eating Disorder, provides definitions of eating problems, health risks and strategies for helping another person.

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Eating Disorders


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Adapted for Amherst College Health Services and the Counseling Center. 12/2002

The Food Matters series has been developed by The professional Network on Eating Disorders, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and produced by the Health Education Division, University Health Services, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1988.



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