Quick Help Guides Disordered Eating

What is Disordered Eating? 

A focus on food, weight, shape, exercise, or calories that hijacks your day-to-day life. Thoughts about food, calories, and your body image start to interfere with things such as your identity, self-image, relationships, schoolwork, athletics, extra-curricular activities, relationship with God, and ability to be fully present and engaged in life.

Why is this important? 

Many eating disorders begin as dieting behavior. Eating disorders can be life threatening, and are easier to treat if caught at the early stages. The longer these thoughts and behaviors stay in place, the more difficult they are to address and change.

Taking Care of Yourself

First, honestly evaluate your "relationship" with food:

  1. You begin to develop “food rules” that are rigid. Some examples include: never eating fats, sugar, carbs, etc., becoming distressed after eating “forbidden” foods/food groups, persistent calorie counting.
  2. Thoughts about food you just ate or going to eat or make become distracting.
  3. Weight fluctuations (or the thought of gaining weight) cause anxiety/panic.
  4. You begin to eat in secret, or experience a sense of shame around food.
  5. Food is a ‘go-to’ in order to manage emotions.
  6. You develop potentially problematic exercise behaviors and/or responses to exercise.
  7. Friends or family members have expressed concern over your food/exercise behaviors, and that concern makes you feel angry or frustrated.
  8. You use vomiting, laxatives, or an extreme exercise regimen in order to burn calories or ‘get rid’ of calories you feel guilty about consuming.

If you have some evidence of disorder eating patterns, here are some ways to take care of yourself:

  1. Allow all foods – Give yourself unconditional permission to enjoy all foods. Begin this process as an experiment of 1 food at a time, recommended to eat with a friend or loved one for support. 
  2. Work to ensure adequate nourishment from food – Even on the days when the voices telling you to restrict are loud, ensure you are getting enough nutrition to maintain your health.
  3. Work towards variety – Try to maintain a balanced plate of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and fiber for the 3 main meals each day that are usually recommended for most people. This helps you feel your best as well as provide your body with all the vitamins and minerals it needs to thrive.
  4. Recognize and honor your hunger – Giving yourself adequate nutrition at regular intervals allows your body’s metabolism to work the way it should! Restriction of food during the day has been shown to decrease metabolic rate.
  5. Feel your fullness – This can be challenging! You may not recognize the need to stop eating until you are overly stuffed (this is very common). Begin with being present and try to feel how it feels to be “full” and not overly stuffed.
  6. Encourage satisfaction – When you allow yourself to eat what you truly crave, you feel so much more content. Honor your taste preferences and notice how they play into satiety.
  7. Engage all your senses – When we eat with our senses (sight, smell, touch, and taste!!) the more connected we will be to our fullness and satisfaction thereby being less likely to overeat in a mindless way.
  8. Practice body awareness – Take a few moments a few times each day to check in with the physical sensations of your body. Think of them as guideposts. Allow for the awareness without judgement and simply notice what is going on in your physical body.
  9. Practice mindfulness – Recognize that you do not need to attach to every thought. If an unwanted thought arises, imagine letting it go.
  10. Develop distress tolerance – Learn that your are strong enough to tolerate feeling your feelings. You can cultivate the ability to sit in the uncomfortable without having to rely on a negative coping mechanism to get you through.
  11. Create off ramps – In the development of learning to tolerate distress, sometimes we need to employ healthy coping mechanisms to get us through. Begin experimenting with what will help you manage difficult situations or emotions, so you do not need to engage with eating disordered behaviors.
  12. Connect with your body in joyful, purposeful way – Practice yoga, apply a nice smelling lotion, dance, get a massage, etc.
  13. Move your body – Whether you enjoy a walk in the woods or an intense spin class, give yourself the opportunity to feel the endorphins build up during movement.
  14. Practice self-care – Self care is primary care. Sprinkle in opportunities to connect your body, mind, and It can be 5 minutes of deep breathing, journaling, drinking a cup of cocoa, calling a friend, anything that makes you happy. Know that self-care is also hard stuff too.
  15. Cultivate joy – find what lights you up and DO THAT!
  16. Remember that your body is an instrument, not an ornament – Repeat that often. Your body houses your soul and is the vehicle that allows you to move through the world.
  17. Create a gratitude journal for the functionality of your body – Write down the ways your body shows up for you every
  18. Stay appropriately hydrated – When we are working to discern our hunger and fullness cues, we want to maintain appropriate hydration to allow for clarity in what are bodies are asking for.
  19. Cope with emotions– Recognize when hunger is not biologically driven and work to “feed” yourself what your body, heart and mind truly need.

How to help a friend

  • Do’s
    • Do listen compassionately and non-judgmentally.
    • Do offer to help connect them to additional support systems like CAPS or Health Center.
    • Do pray for them. Pray for compassion, patience, and understanding for yourself. It’s important to remember your role as a loving and compassionate listener, and not someone who needs to fix or solve anything for them.
  • Dont’s
    • Do NOT be the food police, or address their food choices, or encourage them to eat more. This will only cause them to cling to those behaviors or become defensive.
    • Do NOT express concern by commenting on weight/body shape, but rather other changes you have noticed.

What if these suggestions don’t work?

The Student Life Office and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) can help you get in touch with specialized help on or off campus. Individual counseling is available on campus in addition to support offered by staff in Campus Pastor’s office, Student Life and Residence Life. 

If you need immediate assistance, please call 911, the On Call RD at (805) 565-6273 or Westmont Public Safety at (805) 565-6222.

On- and Off-Campus Support

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) - westmont.edu/caps -  (805) 565-6003

Campus Pastor’s Office: Clark B Cottage, (805) 565-6170

Health Services: Health and Counseling Center (lower campus), (805) 565-6164

Your Resident Directors

Related Scriptures

Psalm 139:14

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

James 5:16

Additional Resources

Information adapted from Sick Enough - A Guide to the Medical Complications of Eating Disorders by Jennifer Gaudiani

What Happens to Our Bodies When We Starve Them?

When our brain senses famine - give it lack of availability of food, or intentional efforts to reduce intake, there is a cascade of events that often occurs.

Parts of our brain that control day-to-day functions such as digestion, heart rate, temperature, and reproductive hormones become alerted.  Our metabolic rate slows, which is our brain and body's desperate attempts to conserve energy.  Our heart rate and digestion slows, our blood pressure drops, blood flow to hands and feet are reduced, which all work to decrease our energy level.  It is our body's way of getting us 'hold still' and conserve energy until the famine subsides.  All of this has obvious impacts on your ability to think, concentrate, and meet your academic and social obligations as a college student.

But I Don't 'Look Sick'

Every body responds differently to inadequate energy intake.  If we take three different people of similar age and body size and reduce their energy intake, all three will have entirely different physiological responses to restriction.  One person might have a slowed heart rate, but normal weight, digestion, and energy levels, while another experiences normal heart rate and slowed digestion.  Some people might lose weight, and some lose no weight at all.  Our genetics determine our bodies response (and resilience) during times of famine - this is why someone who suffers from a severe eating disorder with underlying medical complications may continue to "look normal" despite the dangerous impacts starvation is having internally.

Starvation and the Brain

A malnourished brain is constantly scanning the environment for threats.  Restriction will make us more anxious, vigilant, and rigid in our way of thinking and behaving.  A starved brain registers threat in the environment in the form of famine, and almost always becomes an anxious, preoccupied, overwhelmed brain.  Restriction and starvation almost always results in sleep disturbances. When your brain is on high alert, getting into a space of calm, rest, and relaxation can be nearly impossible at times.  Mood dysregulation, depression, despair, hopelessness, becoming socially withdrawn, and obsessive thinking about food are all commonly experienced as a result of restriction. 

Risks of Purging

Regardless of weight, purging can make a person dangerously ill.  Because physiological changes occur so rapidly, a person can wake up 'healthy' in the morning, and have life threatening complications by the afternoon.  This is due to the abrupt changes in electrolyte levels, potassium, and hydration status.  The body simply can not adapt quickly enough.  Life threatening complications happen swiftly and without warning.  Increased complications can come from the patient or their medical team engaging in size bias and not seeing the individual as 'sick enough' as often times someone who suffers from bulimia or excessive purging will also fall into a 'normal' weight range.