University of Rochester

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Last modified: Thursday, 29-Jun-2017 10:50:24 EDT

University Counseling Center (UCC)

Eating Disorder Basics

Why do people get eating disorders?

Eating disorders are profoundly complex and they vary a great deal from person to person, but there are some common themes in the stories of people who struggle with them. Often there is some kind of negative affect – depression or anxiety or rage or grief, etc – that the person wants to be able to control. They may also have internalization of the "thin ideal", along with strong body dissatisfaction. They may feel that everything else in their life is out of control, but one thing they can control is food and fat. And so they begin to manage their negative affect with dangerous behavior around food.

So disordered eating isn't really about the food, it's about the underlying feelings; and recovery often involves learning more positive ways to manage those feelings, as well as healthy ways to manage food and physical activity. People recover from eating disorders! It takes time and patience, but recovery happens!

I think my friend (or I) might have an eating disorder! How can I tell?

There are three basic patterns to disordered eating:

In all three cases, the key is that the person is using food to manage their feelings.

My friend has an eating disorder! What do I do?

Disordered eating isn't ultimately about the food so talking about what a person is eating or what a person looks like isn't really going to help. And change doesn't happen all at once, like flicking a light switch, it's a gradual process, so your job is not to change your friend, it's to support them in moving gradually along the continuum of change with three tools:

  1. Empathy and compassion: Let the person know you love and support them, even as they struggle and you're there to listen and support. You're worried because you care; let your caring be more important than your worry.

  2. Awareness and referral: Raise awareness of available resources and refer your friend appropriately.

  3. Self-care: Take care of yourself so that you can be mentally and physically strong enough to support your friend during their time of need. Good sleep, physical activity, sunshine, alone time, and time with supportive friends will all help.

If you are worried that a friend's health might be at risk, tell someone like your Res Life staff, who'll be able to pass the info on to the professional staff.

Campus Resources

University Counseling Center

Off Campus, Local Resources

The Healing Connection Inc.
Adolescent Medicine at URMedicine

Developed by Dayton Walsh, Ph.D., University Counseling Center, updated August 26, 2016
585-275-3113 * University Counseling Center Website * University Counseling Center Facebook
* Adapted from "She's Eating That?" Ending Fat-talk and promoting a body-positive house community. Smith College Wellness Office