Does My Sister Have an Eating Disorder?

By October 4, 2012

My sister has always had “issues” with her weight – she is recently divorced, and since this year started has lost 35 -40 lbs., from stress and eating less. She has gone through many changes this year, and seems happy in most aspects, but has a fear of gaining weight again. She works out 2-3 times a week, but does not eat well-balanced meals, sometimes skips meals, and drinks 3-4 cups of coffee and/or latte’s a day. We joke that she “lives on” Starbucks and Red Bulls (she does not drink alcohol). To me and other friends, she does not look healthy. She’s shaky, and always talks about needing to work out because she’s getting “fat again” or “feels fat”… Her skin has also broken out – however, she stopped smoking a couple weeks ago. There are so many factors that could affect her, other than her having an eating disorder. I have tried talking to her about it, and other people have too, but she either laughs it off or doesn’t take us seriously. I’ve had two people ask me if she’s bulimic, and several people ask me if she’s eating right. She just looks at it like she is being conscientious about her body – she now eats a very low carb, high protein diet, even though she is underweight.   I need help in determining if there is a problem, and if so, how I deal with it and talk to her about getting help?   – n.z.

Dear n.z.,

One of the most frequent questions persons ask counselors is “What do I do if I know someone with an eating disorder?” Understand that as professionals we determine an illness by recognized criteria. Certainly, time spent thinking about our weight, losing weight, or fearing weight gain, mixed with bizarre food habits (skipping a meal, excessive caffeine consumption, etc.) are definite signals.

It is not uncommon for people to be able to maintain their jobs and appear normal while hiding their disordered eating. However, significant weight loss, excessive exercise and stimulant use (caffeine), as well as skipping meals will take its toll. It is a fact that important functions including mental, digestive, cardiovascular, kidney, blood cell, glandular, and musculoskeletal functions are all impaired by very restricted eating and/or binge/purge cycles. At times even depression, suicidal thoughts, and social withdrawal can follow if a person is not taking care of themselves and is under significant stress.

Please keep in mind disordered eating does not just afflict adolescent females and/or males. Data suggest that people experiencing significant personal changes, loss and/or disappointment (especially in a romance or committed relationship) may be triggered into disordered eating in an attempt to handle low self-esteem, sexual issues, power struggles, personal guilt and/or ambivalence about their present scenario.

The first step in helping a loved one is to demonstrate how much you care by learning all you can about the problem. Also key is to help collect information from trusted sources about effective counselors. Our article about finding treatment might help you get started. Approach the person and express your concern for him/her. Try not to express criticism, frustration and/or anger. Remember, disordered eating is a painful problem, and attempting to force someone to get help compounds the pain and/or shame. Let the loved one know you care and want to share some details you found in your research when they feel ready to hear. The steps out of disordered eating are hard and demanding – your loved one will serve the best chance of stepping out if he/she has someone who encourages and comforts them along the way.