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August 15, 2014

College Life: How To Talk to A Friend About Their Eating Disorder

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Blog Contributed by Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC

As you go through your college career, you will undoubtedly make the greatest of friendships. Friends that you will study all hours with, share a dormitory with, friends that you pull all-nighters with and make late night food runs.

Friends that become family as you venture through a journey of self-discovery. There will be friends that you will laugh and cry with, and build the fondest of memories.

Facing Friendship Adversity

As you build friendships and meet countless people, you will certainly encounter conflict and confrontation too. You will find that the people you come across share various walks of life, each bringing their own unique perspectives from the struggles and victories they have faced along their journey.

As college is often a melting pot of a widespread number of students, you will quickly discover the different ways your friends, your classmates, your roommates live their life.

Taking the Signs of an Eating Disorder Seriously

What if you suspect that your friend has an eating disorder? With the college years being an intense transitional time period, it is not uncommon that you may encounter a friend who is struggling with these intense mental illnesses, such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, or Binge Eating Disorder.

Whether it is a mild form of disordered eating, pathological dieting, or a clinically diagnosed eating disorder, these illnesses reap devastating consequences and should not be taken lightly.

The Stats Behind Eating Disorders

Research has shown that clinical eating disorders impact 10 to 20 percent of female university students and 4 to 10 percent of male university students, with an even greater number of students chronically dieting or engaging in disordered eating behaviors [1,2].

Perhaps you are concerned about a friend you care for who may be suffering with an eating disorder. Here are some signs and symptoms that may indicate a more serious problem is present:

  • Obsession with weight, body image, nutrition, counting calories, and/or food
  • Avoid situations that involve food, including meals with friends or other social events
  • Frequently eating alone, eating in secret or at night
  • Disappearance to the bathroom during or after meals
  • Low self-esteem or depression
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Exercising compulsively or excessively

These signs may be revealing traits of an eating disorder.

Approaching a Friend About Their Eating Disorder

How can you approach your friend with such a delicate subject at hand? Eating disorder sufferers are often in denial of the severity of their problem and may react defensively to any conversation about their struggle.

It is important to understand that your friend has an identity separate from the eating disorder, and that this illness is a disease that they did not choose to receive. While eating disorders are complex and difficult to face, expressing your care and concern can make all the difference.

Planning the Approach

If you decide to approach your friend, be sure to do so in a place that they will feel most comfortable in. Begin your conversation by expressing your care, concern, and love and come from a place of support and help.

Educate yourself about resources that are available on campus, such as a wellness counselor or support group, that you can share with your friend. You can even offer to attend a group with your friend or help them get connected to the resources they may need for recovery.

It will be difficult to see your friend hurting and struggling, but know that your love and support can positively impact their life, even if you can’t immediately see how.

If you are still unsure how to approach your friend, talk to a person in authority who may be able to help, such as a:

  • Residential director
  • Professor
  • Counselor on campus

Ignoring an eating disorder will only make matters worse, so expressing care and concern effectively can be a lifesaving effort.


[1]: Zivin, K., et al., Persistence of mental health problems and needs in a college student population. Journal of affective disorders, 2009. 117(3): p. 180-185.

[2]: Sira, N. and R. Pawlak, Prevalence of overweight and obesity, and dieting attitudes among Caucasian and African American college students in Eastern North Carolina: A cross-sectional survey. Nutrition Research and Practice, 2010. 4(1): p. 36-42.

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