UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls

Topic - Eating Disorders

The college years can be an exciting time of new opportunities and increased freedom. However, the transition to college can also present challenges as students adjust to living away from family, negotiating new relationships and coping with academic pressures. Another challenge of college life is assuming more responsibility for eating habits.

For those individuals predisposed to developing an eating disorder, the stresses of the college environment can contribute to a troubling sense of a lack of control. Individuals who develop eating disorders often substitute internal control of eating and body weight as a way to deal with feelings of powerlessness over the external environment. In addition, preoccupation with food and body image may serve as a distraction from problems and a way of numbing difficult feelings.

Many college-aged women don’t meet criteria for an eating disorder but are preoccupied with losing weight and dissatisfied with their bodies. Up to a third of college women have “disordered eating” habits, such as using diet pills or laxatives, not eating at all to try to lose weight, or binge-eating .


What is an Eating Disorder?

The idealization of thinness has resulted in distorted body image and unrealistic measures of beauty and success. Cultural and media influences such as TV, magazines, and movies reinforce the belief that women should be more concerned with their appearance than with their own ideas or achievements.

Research has shown that many normal weight and even underweight girls are dissatisfied with their body and are choosing inappropriate behaviors to control their appetite and food intake.

An eating disorder occurs when the focus of a person’s everyday life revolves obsessively around food and weight. Some people try to starve themselves. Others compulsively overeat, and still others combine binging and purging.

Eating disorders often develop as a way to deal with the conflicts and struggles of life and may be used as a way to express control when life itself seems out of control.

Developing and nurturing a positive body image and a healthy mental attitude is crucial to a woman's happiness and wellness.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or concerned about someone who is and would like to talk to someone, please contact us at Counseling Services 715-425-3884.


How do I Help my Friend?

Remember that you cannot force someone to seek help, change their habits, or adjust their attitudes. You will make important progress in honestly sharing your concerns, providing support, and knowing where to go for more information! People struggling with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder do need professional help. There is help available and there is hope.

Being a friend to someone with an eating disorder can sometimes be very challenging. It is normal to feel frustrated, worried and scared for your friend, especially if she or he isn’t able to admit that there is a serious problem. Being secretive about eating and exercising is a common characteristic of an individual with an eating disorder, and you may feel that you have to watch over your friend to make sure he or she is taking care of her or himself. The truth is that you have very limited influence on your friend’s eating habits, and it is ultimately her or his decision about what and how she or he eats. This is not to say that you should give up on or reject your friend who has an eating disorder. People who have sought treatment for an eating disorder often emphasize how important the ongoing support of their friends and family was to their eventual recovery. They say that having friends who both continued to believe in them, and also to relate to them beyond just their eating disorder was crucial in their taking steps toward health.


Should I say something to my friend?

Perhaps the first thing you may ask yourself if you know someone who you suspect has an eating disorder is whether or not you should confront the issue. Ask yourself about your relationship with that person. If it is someone you know only casually (e.g. an acquaintance in a class, someone you see only at the gym) you are probably not the right person to confront that individual. If you are concerned about someone who is a friend, however, it is important to speak to her or him.

Talking to your friend shows that you care enough to say something, even if your friend has difficulty hearing or accepting your concern. Remember that denial of any problem with food is a psychological defense that helps your friend keep her or his real pain tucked away and out of conscious awareness. Eating disorders serve the function of distracting the individual from deeper emotional issues. An eating disorder is a way of coping, and your friend may not be ready to relinquish the sense of control, power or emotional relief that she or he gets from his or her symptoms (e.g. restricting, binging/ purging, exercising).

It is important not to interpret your friend’s denial as a personal rejection. Though he or she may resist your efforts, it is still essential to confront your friend in a supportive way and offer to assist her or him in getting help. Ignoring the problem contributes to the secretiveness and denial that is part of the disorder; this may lead to serious health consequences. Many people with eating disorders initially seek treatment not entirely of their own choosing, but because others have raised the issue and urged them to seek help.


How to Speak to Your Friend

The following are some tips to consider in confronting your friend who has an eating disorder:

  • Pick a time to talk to your friend when there will be no distractions or interruptions. Avoid speaking to her or him about the eating disorder at meal time, or during an argument. Also avoid confronting your friend right before a break in the semester, as this prevents both of you from being able to follow up with a discussion at a later point.
  • Express your concerns directly and sincerely, but avoid criticism or judgment. Use “I statements” in which you express your concern about how your friend’s health and well-being are being affected (e.g. I’m worried about you, because along with losing weight you also seem sad lately.”)
  • Educate yourself about eating disorders. Realizing that you can’t solve your friend’s problem, and understanding that eating disorders are not just about food will help you to better understand your friend’s struggle.
  • Have available resources for treatment handy. If she or he is willing to see a counselor on campus, have the phone number of the Counseling Center available to call for an appointment. Offer to accompany her or him to Counseling Services, but respect his or her privacy if she or he wishes to go alone.
  • Be prepared for her or him to deny that there is a problem, and/or to become tearful or angry. Know that you are doing the right thing in talking to your friend, and tell him or her that you continue to be concerned. Your words may “plant a seed” which may help your friend to get treatment even if he or she isn’t receptive at the time.
  • Offer your continued friendship, support and patience.
  • Don’t promise to keep secrets about the eating disorder, or promise not to tell anyone who would assist your friend in getting treatment.
  • Talk to a counselor about your own feelings regarding the situation.

If you are still worried about your friend or would like more support in helping her or him, UWRF Counseling Services is available for consultation about how to handle the situation. Consultations with the counselors are free and confidential. Depending on the level of concern, the counselor might suggest you inform someone (e.g. administrator, parents) who can take action to directly address the problem. The counselor will help you to determine what can be done to help your friend, and is available to provide support for you as well.

Content Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Counseling Center


These Links may also be helpful

National Eating Disorders Associationlink (NEDA): Education, resources and support to those affected by eating disorders.

The Emily Programlink: Twin Cities-based Eating Disorders Treatment

HELPGUIDE.orglink: Anorexia Nervosa signs, symptoms, and treatment

HELPGUIDE.orglink: Bulimia Nervosa signs, symptoms, and treatment

HELPGUIDE.orglink: Binge Eating signs, symptoms, and treatment

Virtual Pamphlet Collectionlink (topics compiled from top college counseling centers)

 

Page updated August 2012 by Mark Huttemier, MA, LPC. Personal Counselor in Student Health and Counseling at University of Wisconsin – River Falls


Student Health and Counseling Services, Division of Student Affairs | 211 Hagestad Hall
Student Health: 715-425-3293 | Counseling: 715-425-3884 | M-F, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.