How to Help: Eating Disorders

The college years are a time when concerns about body image, weight, dieting, and exercise are often heightened, and eating disorders or “disordered eating” may become of concern.

These concerns can impact both male and female students. It is not necessary to be able to diagnose an eating disorder before speaking to a friend or seeking advice about helping a friend. 

There are multiple offices at the college prepared to help you think about how best to intervene with a friend suspected of having an eating disorder.

Warning Signs for Eating Disorders

  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, and dieting that intrudes on conversations and other activities
  • Excessive, rigid exercise despite bad weather, fatigue, illness, or injury with the intent being to “burn off” calories
  • Avoidance of activities because of weight or size concerns
  • Anxiety about being fat that doesn’t diminish as weight is lost
  • Evidence of self-induced (often secret) vomiting
  • Bathroom mess or messes
  • Rushing to the bathroom immediately after meals
  • Swelling of glands under the jaw that give a “chipmunk” face
  • Evidence of laxatives, diuretics, purgatives, enemas, or emetics
  • Evidence of binge eating, such as hording or stealing food, eating large amounts of food inconsistent with the person’s weight
  • Alternating periods of severely restrictive dieting and overeating, may be accompanied by weight fluctuations
  • Inexplicable problems with menstruation
  • Extreme concern about appearance as the defining part of self esteem
  • Perfectionistic thinking, thinking in black and white (I am thin and good, I am fat and bad)
  • Paleness, complaints about lightheadedness or poor balance not related to other medical problems

Seeking Help

  • You do not have to be sure a friend has an eating disorder before speaking to them about your concern. Choose a time to talk where you won’t be rushed and can have some privacy, unless the situation is an emergency (see below). 
  • Describe the specific behaviors you have observed and share your care, concern, and wish to be of support to the person. Use “I” language, avoid accusations or giving simple solutions. For instance, “I miss spending time together when you spend all your free time working out” is more useful than “You need to quit worrying about being fat.” 

Remember that most eating disorders are rooted in emotional struggles, and blaming the other person will not help. Becoming the “diet police” is not at all helpful. Ask your friend to explore the behaviors of concern with a counselor, doctor, dietician, or other professional who has knowledge of eating disorders. Offer to accompany your friend to the first visit.

Avoid a conflict. If your friend denies any problems, just remind him/her of your concern and your willingness to be a support to them. Let your friend know you want him/her to be healthy and happy. If you are still concerned for your friend’s safety, find a counselor or medical professional to talk to. This person can help you think about how best to support your friend while taking care of yourself. Meanwhile, you can

  • Interact in ways that do not center on food or weight. Give a constant message of your concern and care.
  • Be a good role model, eating a balanced diet, exercising moderately, and accepting your own size and shape.
  • Take care of your own emotional health, and seek input from knowledgeable professionals.

At Luther College, the Health Service (563)387-1045 and Counseling Service (563)387-1375 offices are both located in Larsen Hall. Professionals in these offices can help you think about your role in seeking assistance for your friend.

The Student Life Office in Dahl Centennial Union (563)387-1020 is able to intervene more directly with students who are experiencing more advanced or urgent symptoms (see below).

Emergency Situations Requiring Immediate Response: Call 9-911

  • Use of Ipecac
  • Active thoughts of suicide involving a plan or the intent to act
  • Chest pain
  • Severe abdominal or back pain
  • Passing out
  • Throwing up blood
  • Inability to walk unassisted

Advanced Situations Requiring Prompt Response

Contact Student Life (563) 387-1020, the Health Service (563) 387-1045, or the Counseling Service (563) 387-1375

  • Binging and/or purging several times a day
  • Behavior affects functioning related to academics and daily responsibilities
  • Exercise is used as a purging mechanism or interferes with daily activities
  • Noticeable weight loss
  • Significant restriction of food and/or drink in combination with distorted body image
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness with position change
  • Taking diuretics or laxatives to purge or lose weight