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How To Help Support Someone With an Eating Disorder

It can be heartbreaking if a loved one struggles to overcome an eating disorder. You may wonder what you can do to help and how you can offer much-needed support

Although you may be apprehensive about talking to your friend or family member, the most important thing they will hear is that you are there for them. We will break down the most common eating disorders, warning signs and behaviors you might want to look for, and ways you can be a helping hand. 

Believe it or not, you can play an important role in their recovery.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are complex mental health issues. An eating disorder is a mental illness in which the individual experiences severe disturbances to their eating behavior.

Those with disordered eating may become fixated on, or obsessed with, weight loss, body shape, and food restriction or intake.

A person does not choose to have an eating disorder. Would you tell a friend with clinical depression to just stop being sad? Absolutely not. Similarly, you cannot tell someone with an eating disorder just to change their eating habits.

An eating disorder can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, or body weight. It’s important to remember that someone with an eating disorder may appear completely healthy but may be very ill under the surface. 

Picture the iceberg metaphor: you may only see a tiny part of the problem, but there is so much more you can’t see. Eating disorders can have serious impacts on both physical and mental health. 

They can also be life-threatening if not treated. Still, with eating disorder treatment, recovery is possible. 

What Are the Most Common Eating Disorders?

Though there are many different types of eating disorders, a few are the most common. If you already feel your loved one has an eating disorder, chances are it’s one of the big three.

Anorexia Nervosa

When people think of someone with an eating disorder, they often picture a skeletal female standing on a scale, refusing to eat anything but celery. Most people are picturing anorexia nervosa, aka anorexia. 

Anorexia typically includes an extreme fear of gaining weight, restrictive eating habits, low self-esteem, a focus on body image, and obsessive and disordered behavior around controlling food. Often those with anorexia lose a lot of weight, so those who suffer from it tend to have very low body weight.

Health risks from anorexia include malnutrition, heart complications, lack of menstrual cycle, brittle hair and nails, and in extreme cases, death. People struggling with anorexia can have difficulty seeing themselves clearly, making it challenging to overcome.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa involves episodes of binge eating followed by purging, usually in the form of vomiting, but sometimes by using laxatives or diuretics. Also known as bulimia, this disorder is sometimes tricky to spot because the person may not undergo dramatic physical changes.

Most people who have bulimia are average body weight. The only reason you may begin to suspect something is wrong is if they are making frequent trips to the bathroom after meals. Bulimia comes with unique health risks and medical complications, such as tooth problems from vomiting repeatedly, digestive issues, ulcers, and esophageal inflammation.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is like bulimia, except without the purging aspect. People with BED struggle to develop a healthy relationship with food and often engage in extreme binge sessions, eating as much as several days’ worth of food in one sitting.

After a binge, the person usually experiences extreme guilt and physical discomfort. Like someone with a hangover, they will often vow never to do that to themselves again, only to find that when “next time” rolls around, they are again out of control. 

Because those with BED tend to overeat massive amounts, they are usually overweight and sometimes obese. Obesity comes with health risks, such as heart disease, joint problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. 

How Can I Recognize if a Loved One Has an Eating Disorder?

It’s not always easy to know whether or not a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, but there are certainly some warning signs.

  • Constant dieting, counting calories, skipping meals, fasting, or avoiding certain foods.

  • Excessive exercising, such as working out while injured or refusing to interrupt a workout session for any reason.

  • Frequently finding excuses to avoid meals, especially meals that involve eating with others or eating in public.

  • Making lists of “good” or “bad” foods.

  • Obsessive behaviors when it comes to checking weight or appearance. Constantly looking in the mirror, pinching “fat,” or weighing themselves frequently.

  • Sudden changes in clothing style, such as switching to wearing baggy clothes all the time.

  • Secrecy regarding food — hiding it, eating in secret, concealing food or food wrappers in the trash.

  • Eating incredibly slowly — we are talking snail speed. Cutting food into teeny-tiny pieces, eating with teaspoons, etc.

  • Preparing food for the family, but not eating with them at mealtime.

  • Developing obsessive or compulsive rituals around food. For example, eating only at certain times, using a certain utensil, etc.

  • Denying being hungry, even when they have not eaten for hours or even days.

  • Sudden or rapid weight loss.

  • They might always be tired.

  • They suddenly develop an intense fear of weight gain.

  • Very low self-esteem.

  • Mood changes. 

If you are noticing these signs, don’t sit back and wait. It may be nerve-wracking to confront someone about such a sensitive subject, but we have some tips that can help you. 

How To Help Your Friend or Loved One

You’re probably feeling helpless (yes, even more helpless than when Netflix gave up their rights to The Office). You are already doing a great thing just by reading this article! Here are our top tips for supporting a friend in need.

Get Educated

You’re off to a good start, but this is just the beginning. Before approaching your loved one, ensure you have the necessary knowledge — not so you can have some kind of “gotcha” intervention-style moment. It’s so that you can learn to understand what they are going through.

Approach With Caution

A few things to consider before speaking: How well do you know this person? How do you think they will respond to the conversation? How can I make this warm, caring, helpful, rather than confrontational?

You may find some great information about what to say to your friend, but make sure it’s authentic. You know them, and they know you. You want to ensure that what you’re saying doesn’t sound scripted (even if it kind of is). 

Here are some dos and don’ts for your initial conversation:

Do:

  • Have the conversation outside of the context of a meal.
  • Use “I” statements to express things you have noticed or are feeling.
  • Be direct. Don’t use euphemisms or coded language.
  • Show compassion.
  • Tell them you are there for them if they want to talk more.
  • Ask how you can support them.
  • Encourage professional help, inform them about treatment options, and let them know that most people can recover from eating disorders.

Don’t:

  • Don’t have any expectations. They may listen to you, they may storm out, they may cry, they may get mad, or they may downplay the reality. All are normal reactions.
  • Don’t get upset or discouraged if they shut down and don’t want to talk. 
  • Don’t underestimate how much you can help, even just by showing them you care.
  • Don’t give ultimatums or threats.
  • Don’t be manipulative (don’t worry, we know it can happen even if you’re not a manipulative person). Be honest and direct with how you feel and how you can help.
  • Don’t immediately give up if they don’t want to get treatment — this is a long, hard road.

Okay, so it’s true we just told you to use your own words and not sound scripted, but if you’re stuck, here are some words that may help. Adapt them to work for you!

“I’ve noticed that when we eat together, you often eat very little.”

“I’ve been pretty worried about you. Is everything okay?”

“I’m worried about how often you’ve been going to the gym.”

“I’m here for you, and I’m not going to leave.”

“I might not understand, but I’m ready to listen whenever you want to talk. I’ll help as much as I can.”

If They Deny That They Have a Problem

They will likely deny the issue. No one likes to admit that they have a problem, and they may not even understand that what they’re dealing with is a disease.

A common symptom of eating disorders is something called anosognosia. It’s super frustrating for loved ones because it makes it harder to convince the person to get treatment. 

In anosognosia, the person literally doesn’t understand that anything is wrong, likely due to brain malnutrition. Because of this, the person doesn’t have a full grasp of their reality, and it can make it nearly impossible (at least at first) to convince them to get help

The best thing you can do is be a broken record: keep telling them that you’re there for them and that you care, but don’t give in to their idea of reality. If you keep expressing your concerns, you may be able to convince them that their view of things may not be correct. 

Most importantly, don’t get discouraged and don’t give up! Remember that most people who recover from eating disorders only do so because they have someone in their lives who was willing to commit to helping them. Don’t lose hope. 

Conclusion

There are many ways to help someone struggling with an eating disorder. The best way is to express your concerns honestly and genuinely, tell them you will be there for them, and encourage them to seek professional help through a healthcare provider, therapist, or treatment center. 

Whether your loved one attends support groups, calls a helpline, or attends inpatient treatment or outpatient programs, there is hope. It won’t be easy, but eating disorder recovery is possible, and always remember that you can help. 

Sources:

How to Help a Loved One | National Eating Disorders Association

How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder | Very Well Mind

Eating Disorders: About More Than Food | National Institute for Mental Health