How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder

Your Support Could Be Their Key to Recovery

Knowing how to help someone with an eating disorder can be difficult, but it’s important to speak up if you recognize changes in someone you care about. Your support can be one of the most critical elements in helping your friend or loved one recover.

Many times, people struggling with an eating disorder do their best to hide it. Eating disorders are known as a “disease of disconnection” and often cause those with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating to isolate themselves to maintain their symptoms. 

Those struggling with an eating disorder may fear talking about it. They may not be ready to change, or perhaps the idea of life without an eating disorder seems foreign to them. But as someone who cares, your job is to encourage change to help them live a life not dictated by worries around weight, shape, and size. You have to help them be honest without judging their struggles. 

It may be hard to understand why someone may engage in behaviors that put their life and health at risk. It’s important to realize that someone struggling with an eating disorder isn’t “bad.” They didn’t choose to develop an eating disorder. Rather, they just got stuck, likely over time. 

If someone you love has an eating disorder, it likely developed as a coping mechanism to attempt to control a problematic area in their life. Perhaps they have social anxiety or want to end being the victim of bullying. By trying to cope with this problem, they may have accidentally created a bigger problem: an eating disorder. 

Letting your loved one know you care and are willing to help them find a path to recovery can be life-changing and life-saving.

Recovery from an eating disorder is possible. You can help.

Tips for Supporting Someone With an Eating Disorder

Step 1: Have the Difficult Conversation

Addressing your concerns about noticing someone’s eating disorder behavior can be scary. But speaking up and naming what you’ve observed is the right thing to do. Statistics show the sooner an eating disorder is treated, the more likely recovery is possible. 

Prepare For The Difficult Conversation

  • Educate yourself. There are a lot of misconceptions about eating disorders. Take time to separate the truth from the myths about nutrition, weight, and exercise. Read websites, blogs, and articles from respected sources. We recommend NEDA and AED.
  • Understand that this conversation may be welcomed. But it may also be challenging. Talking to someone about a possible eating disorder isn’t easy. While some with an eating disorder may be relieved when someone finally notices their struggle, others may get defensive, angry, and try to minimize the dangers. Be open and sympathetic yet firm with your concerns. Encourage them to seek medical advice just to be sure.
  • Practice what you’re going to say. If you rehearse what you’re going to say, you may feel less anxious and less likely to forget specific examples to indicate your concern. There’s no shame in heading into the conversation with notes, either. We recommend:
    • Reminding them why you care
    • Telling them what you’ve noticed
    • Asking them what they’re feeling
    • Working together to develop a plan to seek help for their concerns
    • Identifying your “end goal,” such as making an appointment for a professional opinion
    • Keeping your resources in mind (primary care physician, HPA/LiveWell, etc.) to point them in the direction of wellness and healing
  • Choose the appropriate time. When thinking about how to help someone with an eating disorder, it’s always best to lead with respect, understanding, and trust. Just like any tough conversation, there is a time and place to do it the right way. To prevent any feelings of defensiveness or embarrassment, lead with your observations and facts in a respectful, understanding way. Set aside adequate time and identify a private, comfortable place to talk openly and honestly.

How To Talk To Someone With an Eating Disorder:

  • Use Respect, Understanding, & Trust. Be direct, sympathetic, and honest about your concerns. Share specific examples of the changes to their behavior you’ve noticed. Share your concern about the impact their behaviors may have on their health. Remember – this not about you; this is about helping them.
  • Address Facts Over Fears. Emotions will likely run high during your discussion. Try your best to stick to the facts about their behavior changes and your concerns for their health. This is where it’s helpful to refer to your notes.
  • Avoid accusatory statements. It’s best to stay away from saying things like, “You don’t eat!” and “You exercise way too much!” Instead, use “I” statements by saying things like, “I’ve noticed you’ve missed family dinners the last three nights” or “I’m concerned about how often you are going to the gym.” If possible, also point out changes in their behavior unrelated to exercising, weight, and eating. These could be less threatening and a bit easier for them to hear.
  • Support them in seeking professional help. Encourage your loved one to seek support. Don’t overwhelm them with what treatment may look like. Instead, simply encourage them to make the first phone call to someone they are comfortable speaking with who can start the evaluation process to find the appropriate care. (Such as their primary doctor or school counselor.) Some clinicians know how to have these conversations, they are trained experts in eating disorder treatment, and can help them take the first steps to change.

How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder Step 2: Support, Support, Support

Your job as a caregiver is so important. Support is one of the most significant things you can do when considering how friends and family can help with eating disorders. Even if your loved one willingly agrees to get professional help, taking those first steps may be overwhelming. But you can give them the support they need.

  • Make it easy to make the first call. Have the resources available to reduce the stress of making the first phone call. Provide them all the information they need to schedule an initial appointment. It may be helpful to offer to attend the first appointment alongside them.
  • Provide constant support. Agree to, and follow through on regular check-ins. Be an accountability partner for making a phone call to a provider or scheduling an appointment to ensure they make their treatment a priority.
  • Ensure regular doctor’s visits. Encourage your loved one to follow up with their medical provider as disordered eating can have physical consequences.
  • Focus on what matters. Everyone has a reason to get better. We all strive to encourage our loved ones to live the best quality of life possible. When promoting change, something has to matter more. Oftentimes, highlighting ways their life may improve may provide the motivation for them to consider following through on the changes they need to make.