Helping a student who may have disordered eating

Guidance on how to support a student who may be showing signs of irregular eating behaviors including what you can do, and what not to do.

Having a strong support network is important to recovery.

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating is used to describe a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder.

It’s not necessarily about food, but food is the substance abused by people with disordered eating.

Disordered eating has both physical and psychological symptoms. They are characterized by problematic attitudes and feelings about food, weight and body shape, a disruption in eating behaviors and weight management, and intense anxiety about body weight and size.

Almost everyone worries about their weight occasionally. People with eating disorders take such concerns to extremes. Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa,  bulimia nervosa, and binge eating are diagnosed by a medical professional according to specific and narrow criteria.

  • Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by restricted eating, self-starvation and excessive weight loss.
  • Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of overeating large amounts of food in a short period of time (the binge) followed by some form of purging.
  • Binge Eating is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating that are not followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviors (purging) to prevent weight gain.

What to do

  • Speak to the student in private.
  • Be supportive and express concern for the student’s health and well-being.
  • Identify specific behaviors or symptoms that are of concern. (“I’ve noticed that you’ve stopped eating lunch and talk about needing to lose more weight.”)

Then, refer the student to University Health Services: Mental Health Services (608-265- 5600 – option 9) located in 333 East Campus Mall.

What to avoid

  • Focusing on weight rather than health and effective functioning.
  • Judging the student’s behaviors or labeling them (“self-destructive”).
  • Recommending solutions such as “accept yourself” or “just eat healthy”.
  • Commenting on student’s weight loss, as you may be inadvertently encouraging unhealthy behaviors.
  • Getting into a battle of wills with the student. If the student is resisting your efforts, restate your concerns and leave the door open for further contact.

If you think the situation is urgent, consult a professional in University Health Services: Mental Health Services (608- 265-5600 – option 9).