Eating Disorders

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a condition in which someone’s food consumption is taken to an extreme, either by eating an insufficient or excessive amount of food. These extreme eating behaviors, which are oftentimes accompanied by feelings of intense concern about body weight and shape, endanger the person’s health and wellbeing.

Signs and Symptoms

Eating disorders are complex, and symptoms may vary depending on the person. The lists below describe common symptoms exhibited by specific eating disorders, but there may be other symptoms not listed here which also indicate the possibility of an eating disorder.

For anorexia:  

 Physiological symptoms such as: 

  • Abnormal weight loss
  • Intense, persistent fear of gaining weight
  • Refusal to eat or highly restrictive eating
  • Continuous dieting
  • Excessive facial/body hair because of inadequate protein in the diet
  • Sensitivity to cold/low body temperature
  • Absent or irregular menstruation
  • Hair loss
  • Dizziness and fainting spells / low blood pressure

 Behavioral symptoms such as:

  • Restricted eating, severe diets, fasting, “vegetarianism”
  • Odd food rituals, food combinations
  • Avoidance of social situations where food may be present
  • Compulsive exercise
  • Dressing in layers to hide weight loss, or keep warm
  • Distortion of body image (seeing self as fat even when emaciated)
  • Intense fear of becoming fat, regardless of low weight
  • Use of laxatives, enemas, or diuretics
  • Interest in cooking and feeding others
  • Self-worth is determined by food intake
  • Mood shifts/depression/anxiety

For Bulimia: 

 Physiological symptoms such as:

  • Person may be under-, over-, or normal weight
  • Swollen glands, puffiness in the cheeks, or broken vessels under the eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue and muscle ache
  • Unexplained tooth decay
  • Frequent weight fluctuations
  • Electrolyte imbalance which can lead to irregular heartbeat, and in some cases, cardiac arrest.

 Behavioral symptoms such as:

  • Secretive eating (missing food)
  • Avoidance of restaurants, planned meals or social events if food is present
  • Self-disgust when too much has been eaten
  • Bathroom visits after meals
  • The use of diet pills
  • Rigid and harsh exercise regimes
  • Fear of being fat, regardless of weight
  • Bingeing that may alternate with fasting
  • Preoccupation / constant talk about food or weight
  • Vomiting and laxative use
  • Mood shifts including depression, sadness, guilt, and self-hate
  • Severe self-criticism
  • Self-worth determined by weight
  • Feeling out of control

For Binge Eating Disorder: 

Physiological symptoms such as:

  • Weight-related hypertension or fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Heart Disease

 Behavioral symptoms such as:

  • Bingeing
  • Restriction of activities because of embarrassment about weight
  • Going from one diet to the next
  • Eating small amounts in public while maintaining a high weight
  • Feeling about self based on weight and control of eating
  • Fantasizing about being thin
  • Depression
  • Guilt / shame 

For Eating Disorders Otherwise Not Classified:  

Even if someone’s symptoms don’t fall strictly into a specific eating disorder category, are a normal body weight, or still have a regular menstrual cycle, they may still be experiencing disordered eating. 

  • People exhibiting a variety of symptoms which span different categories of the major eating disorders may have what’s known as an Eating Disorder Otherwise Not Specified (EDNOS).
  • More ambiguously categorized eating disorders are just as dangerous to the person’s health and wellbeing as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, and require treatment.     


There is no one single cause for eating disorders. They are influenced by a complex variety of factors, such as genetic, psychological, environmental, and cultural issues.

 Potential contributing factors include:

  • Dieting 
  • Genetics 
  • Depression and Anxiety  
  • Excessive Exercise  
  • Psychological Factors – such as a need for control or attention, lack of self esteem, family discord, sexual abuse, high family expectations, perfectionism, need to please, socio-cultural role of the media, or teasing about weight and body shape.   

Common Misconceptions

 (adapted from National Eating  

1. Myth: Eating disorders are all about control.

Fact: Eating disorders are complex and not attributable to a single cause. They are influenced by interactions of biological, psychological, cultural, environmental, and social factors. In fact, when a person feels they are exerting control through their eating disorder, they are really NOT in control, because their ED interferes with every aspect of their life and prevents them from functioning healthfully without getting help.

2. Myth: Eating disorders are caused by a desire to be thin.

Fact: Eating disorder behaviors do not develop just because someone wants to be thin. In fact, they have little to do with beauty, appearance, media images, or food. They are a complex mental illness reflective of serious underlying issues.

3. Myth: Eating disorders are a choice.

Fact: People do not choose to have an eating disorder. Even though someone may choose to start dieting or engage in certain behaviors, these disorders develop over a period of time and require various levels of treatment to address complex symptoms including medical, psychiatric and other underlying issues. 

4. Myth: You can tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them.

Fact: Many people with eating disorders are of normal weight, or even overweight. Furthermore, eating disorder patients can become quite skilled at hiding their disordered eating behaviors.

5. Myth: Recovery is rare for people with eating disorders.

Fact: Though it takes time and treatment, most people with EDs are able to to normalize their eating habits.

6. Myth: Eating disorders are not usually deadly.

Fact: Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness. A woman with anorexia nervosa is 5.6 times more likely to die than another woman of her same age.

Different Kinds of Eating Disorders

Anorexia –  characterized by a relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight. Bulimia – characterized by recurrent and frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food (e.g., binge-eating), and feeling a lack of control over the eating. This binge-eating is followed by a type of behavior that compensates for the binge, such as purging (e.g., vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics), fasting and/or excessive exercise. 
Binge Eating Disorder – recurrent binge-eating episodes during which a person feels a loss of control over his or her eating. Unlike bulimia, binge-eating episodes are not followed by purging, excessive exercise or fasting. 
Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified – characterized by exhibiting almost all of the symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, or BED, but having a normal body weight and/or menstrual cycle.  

Coping with an eating disorder

 Here are some tips for coping with an eating disorder. Please keep in mind that this information is not a substitute for medical advice or professional help.  

  • Surround yourself with support – be open with friends about how you feel, and how they can support you
  • Identify your triggers and how to avoid them – identify the stresses, feelings, and/or other things that trigger your disordered eating habits so you can better understand why they happen
  •  Take care of yourself - make sure that other aspects of your wellbeing are taken care of, from getting a good night’s sleep to your mental health.
  • Learn healthy eating habits – consult with a professional nutritionist or other eating disorder specialist to figure out ways to maintain a healthy, nutritious diet.
  • View media with a critical eye – realize that media images of people’s bodies are often hyperbolic and exaggerated. Don’t allow them to negatively affect how you feel about yourself, because they aren’t real.
  • Stay away from the scale – realize that your self-worth does not depend on a number
  • Positively re-think your body image  
  • Keep a list of things you like about yourself that have nothing to do with your appearance
  • Do something you enjoy - that keeps you busy and engaged, such as walking, hanging out with friends, reading, watching a movie, etc.
  • Write about it – keep a journal to record your thoughts and feelings 


1. I think I have an eating disorder, but I don’t feel comfortable talking with a counselor. What should I do? 

Consider talking with someone you trust, like a close friend, member of the college personnel team, or RHA, about any issues you’re struggling with. If you’re exhibiting some of the symptoms of an eating disorder, it’s never too early to seek an intervention. Consider the intensity, duration, and frequency of your symptoms before you write off going to a counselor. If any or all of these factors are significant, then you should consider talking with someone from the Counseling Center to figure out better ways to address it. 

2. I’m experiencing some of the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, but not enough that I feel I need to seek professional help. What should I do? 

If you’re not ready or comfortable talking with someone from the Counseling Center, consider talking with someone you trust, such as a close friend, college master, RA, RHA, or faculty mentor. They may be able to help guide you to appropriate resources.
If you’re afraid that going to the Counseling Center implies that you’re “weak,” or “crazy,” feel reassured that this an incorrect perception. In fact, the majority of people who use the Counseling Center have very typical college concerns which have become burdensome. Also, seeking counseling is actually seen as a sign of strength, not weakness.

3. How do I tell my friends about my eating disorder? 

What and how you tell your friends about your eating disorder is completely up to you. However, make sure you know the parameters of the information you choose to divulge before having the conversation, whether that concerns addressing your symptoms, struggles, and/or treatment, etc. Consider asking a close friend to check in with you regularly about how you’re doing with managing your eating disorder.

4. I think one of my friends has an eating disorder, what should I do now? 

If your friend is in immediate danger or having an urgent health crisis, don’t hesitate to call RUPD at 713-348-6000.
Having a conversation with a friend about your concerns can be hard. For tips on ways to approach the conversation, check out the “Get Help for a friend” link. If you’re still unsure about how to have an effective conversation, consider contacting the Counseling Center. A staff member can help you figure out better ways to talk with your friend based on your specific situation. If you’re uncomfortable speaking with someone from the Counseling Center, start with a trusted mentor or adult in your life, such as a member of the college personnel team.

5. How do I deal with my eating disorder in my everyday life? 

 Clinical eating disorders are often most effectively treated by a healthcare professional, through therapy, medication, or a combination of both. To get help or talk to someone, contact the Counseling Center. - For more suggestions for ways to cope with an eating disorder, see our “Coping with Eating disorders” section on this page. Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions, and are not a substitute for professional help or medical advice. On the other hand, if you’ve tried these suggestions for a period of time and they don’t seem to be alleviating your symptoms, consider talking with a counselor from the Counseling Center to figure out better ways to address your issues. See the Get Help page for more contact information.


 “Common Myths about Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorders Association.  

“Coping with Eating Disorders.”

“Eating Disorders: General Information.” 2011. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

“Eating Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health.
“Facts on Eating Disorders.” From American Anorexia Bulimia Association.
Siegel. M. et al (1988). Surviving an Eating Disorder. Harper and Row. University of Winsconsin Counseling Services.

Tartakovsky, Margarita, MS. “NEDA Week: It’s Time to Talk about Eating disorder Myths and Facts.” PsychCentral. 22 Feb 2010. Jun 2011.