12 Minutes

Edited & medically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
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Eating disorders are characterized by drastic alterations in eating habits, such as sticking to strict diets, secretly bingeing on food, vomiting after meals, and excessively tracking calories. It’s difficult to watch somebody you care about deteriorate their health, particularly when the cure appears to be simple on the surface. However, eating disorders are much more complex than just bad eating habits. They are skewed, self-critical perspectives about food, weight, and body image at their core, and they’re efforts to cope with emotional concerns. These destructive actions are fueled by unpleasant ideas and feelings.

People who suffer from eating disorders consume food to cope with painful or unpleasant emotions. To stay in control, many restrict their food intake. Overeating might momentarily alleviate feelings of melancholy, rage, or loneliness. Purging is a technique for dealing with feelings of hopelessness and self-hatred. People with eating disorders lose their ability to perceive themselves objectively over time, and their preoccupation with food and weight begins to control their life. Identifying the root causes that drive an eating disorder and discovering strategies for coping with emotional discomfort are the first steps on their journey to recovery.

While you can’t make someone with an eating disorder change, you can encourage them and support them to seek help. And this can have a significant impact on your loved one’s rehabilitation and recovery.

How To Help Someone With An Eating Disorder

The following are the most frequently occurring eating disorders:

Anorexia. People who suffer from anorexia severely restrict their food intake due to a profound fear of growing fat. They never feel they are thin enough, even if they are underweight or even malnourished. Individuals with anorexia can regulate their weight by exercise, diet, medications, or purging in addition to calorie restriction.

Bulimia. Bulimia is characterized by a vicious binge-purge cycle. Bulimics take severe measures to cleanse themselves of excess calories after an incident of out-of-control binge eating. They vomit, exercise excessively, fast, or take laxatives to avoid gaining weight.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED). People who suffer from binge eating disorder eat excessively, absorbing lots of calories in a short time. Despite their emotions of remorse and humiliation about their secret binges, they are unable to regulate their conduct or quit consuming even when they are uncomfortably full.

Friends and family members are often instrumental in encouraging somebody with an eating problem to seek treatment. Many eating disorder patients find it difficult to get help for their eating disorder, whether they are uninformed that they have a problem, are embarrassed or humiliated to seek help, or are hesitant about giving up disordered eating habits. Friends and family can assist the sufferer in recognizing troubling signs and urging them to seek care.

Raising questions about the possibility of an eating disorder

It isn’t always easy to talk about eating disorders with someone close to you. However, many people who have recovered from an eating disorder claim that their friends and family were crucial in their recovery.

Prepare yourself. You will be better equipped to understand and aid the person you are taking care of or supporting if you learn more about eating disorders and how to manage them. The individual you care about may be dealing with a lot of anxiety, shame, guilt, humiliation, and/or denial, or they may not even realize they have a body image and/or eating problem. It’s critical to recognize this and take it into account if the individual ever reacts with rage or denial.

Select a caring atmosphere for the talk session. Any approach must be carried out with compassion, in an environment that provides for an open and calm discussion. For instance, speaking with the individual in a setting where they feel most at ease and comfortable, like at home, can be helpful. If one of you is irritated, tired, or emotional, don’t bring it up.

Pick a place and time to talk that is both confidential and comfortable for both of you. Nobody wants to have their personal difficulties discussed in front of a large group, so make sure you schedule a place or time where you can address your worries without feeling pressured or in front of a large group.

Use “I” statements whenever possible. Focus on the behaviors and actions that you’ve noticed, like “I’ve noticed that you’re not eating dinner with us anymore” or “I’m concerned about how often you go to the gym.” It’s all too easy to accuse (“You’re not eating!”). You’re overexerting yourself!”), which might make a person defensive. Instead, focus on highlighting what you’ve noticed. If possible, point out non-eating and weight-related habits, which may be easier for the person to notice and accept.

Prepare everything you want to say in advance. This may assist to calm you down and clarify what you want to say. Others have found that writing out their primary arguments is beneficial.

Keep your focus on the facts. Concerns about an eating disorder can elicit a range of emotions, and it’s crucial not to let them take over. Instead, talk about the behaviors and changes you’ve noticed and explain why you’re concerned (“I’ve noticed you running to the restroom after meals, which makes me scared you’re making yourself puke up.”)

Remove any possible stigma. Assure your loved one that has an eating disorder or any other psychological condition is not a sign of weakness. Many individuals will be diagnosed with these problems at some point in their lives, and many will recover.

Avoid solutions that are extremely simplistic. It’s not beneficial to be urged to “just quit” or “just eat.” It might make the victim feel angry, defensive, and misunderstood.

Encourage to seek help from a professional. In order to recover from an eating disorder, many people seek professional assistance. If the sufferer doesn’t have a doctor or therapist, offer to help them find one, or attend an appointment when the eating problem is discussed. Getting prompt, effective therapy improves a person’s chances of recovery substantially.

Be ready for bad feedback. Some people with eating disorders are relieved that someone has discovered their problems. Others had a different reaction. Some people may become enraged and confrontational, arguing that you are the problem. Others may dismiss your concerns or downplay the threats. Both of these reactions are perfectly typical. Reiterate your issues, express your concern, and keep the conversation going.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t think the conversation went well or that you were able to reach out to your loved one. You expressed your worry and assured them that you care and are available to them. You may have also sowed the seeds that they should seek assistance. The seed may not germinate right away, but the care of family and friends can help guide an individual toward healing over time.

It’s challenging to be around a friend who is suffering from an eating disorder. Many people are left speechless as they try to comprehend what their loved one is suffering from, what they can do for them, and how they can assist. While the person must do the majority of the work to recover, there are things you can do to help them along the way.

Recognize the Telltale Signs

When you get a “bad feeling” but don’t know where and what to look for, it might be difficult to recognize that your loved one is in peril. Outside of the area of eating disorder therapy, many people are unaware of how to recognize warning flags of eating disorder beliefs or behaviors. If you have concerns about somebody in your life struggling, look into the following areas.

Their Thoughts

The person’s ideas about food, body, fitness, and self-worth might be a crucial predictor of disordered eating. These viewpoints can be deduced from the way they discuss these topics. It’s crucial to note whether a person’s interactions appear to be hyper-focused on losing weight, changing themselves, slimness, food, nutritive values, exercise regimes, and other facets of food and body, and to gently address any problematic views.

Their Attitudes

If someone is battling with disordered eating behaviors and thoughts, their actions will reveal it. Acting on the above-mentioned hyper-fixations through drastic dietary and exercise changes, for instance, maybe the cause for concern, especially if a person is linking their ability to “successfully” do so to their feeling of self-worth. The following are some more behavioral warning indicators of an eating disorder:

  • Calorie-counting
  • Consuming food alone.
  • Weight loss is extreme and unexpected.
  • Refusing to eat, or saying that they are “not hungry” or “have already eaten.”
  • Increasing conversation on the body, fitness, and nutrition.
  • Hiding food items.
  • Diuretics and/or laxatives are being hoarded.
  • Using the restroom more frequently, especially before or after meals.
  • They are constantly weighing themselves and/or focusing exclusively on the figure on the scale.

You might also want to assist your friend in finding additional professional assistance and support. Because this is unlikely to be something you’ve studied, figuring out where to start and how to go can be difficult. Encourage your loved one to discuss these behaviors with their Primary Care Provider, Psychiatrist, or Therapist as a first step. These professionals can refer your loved one to the right resources.

Additionally, organizations and websites dedicated to eating disorder advocacy and education, like the National Eating Disorders Association or Eating Disorder Hope, which include resource sections. These resources aren’t only for professionals; they frequently include encouraging articles for your loved ones, instructional pieces that might help them understand how to seek and receive treatment, and online support groups that may be beneficial.

Based on the intensity of their disorder, your friend will require different levels of care. People with eating disorders who are managed by a multidisciplinary team have superior recovery outcomes, regardless of their level of treatment. This indicates they could benefit from seeing a dietician, therapist, and psychiatrist at the very least.

It may seem as if there is nothing you can do to help your loved one discover appropriate treatment and providers. Understand that you can sometimes serve as a gauge for your loved one’s rehabilitation progress. You won’t be able to participate in their therapy as a member of the treatment team, but they’ll probably listen to you if you express ambivalence or struggle. You can praise your friend for their accomplishments and encourage them to keep going.

You are an important part of your friend’s journey. You can’t make people recover; but, you can give them the care and support they need to take a courageous approach to rehab and recovery.

Focus on your self-care as well.

Based on how close you and your friend are, assisting a friend with an eating disorder might bring up a variety of feelings. These can vary from excitement and determination to dissatisfaction and disappointment on rare occasions. Not to add, if you have a troubled relationship with your own body, it can be much more difficult to be a part of someone’s healing support system.

Because healing is a long and sometimes finicky process, make sure you’ve got a support structure in place for yourself. A therapist, a gratitude diary, or a regular yoga practice that fosters an active appreciation of your own body could all be helpful.

Recovering from an eating disorder necessitates professional assistance, and the sooner a person seeks therapy, the better. It’s difficult to watch a loved one suffer while refusing to get treatment. Even if their child does not believe therapy is essential, parents of children under the age of 18 can often demand that their child’s eating disorder be addressed with proper therapy, support, and treatment.

Encouraging a reluctant eating disorder patient to get help can be a tricky duty for parents of elder patients and other loved ones of sufferers of any age. However, recovery is critical for their long-term health, and promoting the correct treatment of their eating disorder can help them get there.

Although each conversation with an eating disorder sufferer will be unique, there are a few key factors to remember:

Taking the initial step toward rehabilitation can be frightening and difficult. Although getting help may appear to be a simple process, it can be quite stressful and complicated. It will be easier for you to sympathize with what the other person is going through if you keep this in mind.

Inquire if they require assistance in making the initial call or appointment. Someone else setting up an appointment or accompanying them to explore a possible eating issue may make it less stressful for some people.

Don’t fall for the excuses of an eating disorder. It’s easy to make a commitment to see a doctor or therapist, but the patient must follow through on the appointment and see the expert on a regular basis. Yes, everyone is busy, treatment can be costly, and the eating disorder may not appear to be a serious problem. Don’t make eating disorder treatment your primary topic of conversation with your loved one; instead, follow through on their vow to visit someone.

Encourage them to keep searching if the first therapist isn’t a good fit. Finding the appropriate therapist is difficult, and it may be necessary to interview several candidates before settling on one. It may take several attempts before a person finds the right clinician.

Ensure that they receive a medical examination. Eating disorders can lead to a variety of medical problems, therefore sufferers should consult a doctor on a frequent basis to ensure that their health isn’t jeopardized. Don’t rely just on blood testing because laboratory work may remain steady even if someone is near death.

Support the side of them that wishes to recover. Eating problem sufferers are frequently resistant to changing their habits. Some people have found it simpler to concentrate on some of the eating disorder’s side effects, like social isolation, depression, insomnia, anxiety, exhaustion, or feeling chilly, which the sufferer may be more ready to identify and address. This can assist them to get in the door, where they can begin to address their eating disorder.

Remind the person why they want to get better in the first place. What are the goals that your loved one has set for themselves? Do they want to go on a trip? Do you have kids? Will you be attending college? Starting a new job? Helping them reconcile with their principles and who they like can help them focus on long-term recovery rather than the eating disorder’s short-term rewards.

Find a comfortable medium between pushing them and ignoring the problem altogether. If you are extremely insistent on your loved one obtaining help, they may begin to avoid you. You don’t want to neglect a possibly fatal sickness, on the other hand. It’s difficult to strike a balance between these two poles, but asking your loved ones how well they’re doing and if they’re prepared to get therapy on a frequent basis might help move them in the correct direction.



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