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How to help someone with an eating disorder

If you know someone who's struggling with an eating disorder, you may feel an array of emotions, from sadness and fear to frustration and uncertainty. But if you're also feeling helpless, you should know that there are things you can proactively do to help.

From educating yourself on the condition and what your loved one is going through to listening to their concerns openly and honestly and helping them locate or enroll in a treatment program, there are many ways to support someone with an eating disorder.

We offer family programing

Online eating disorder therapy for families, family coaching calls, multi-family groups, and education for loved ones.

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 minute read
Last updated on 
September 14, 2023
June 3, 2024
How to help someone with an eating disorder
In this article
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How to help a loved one with an eating disorder: Educate yourself

Many people wonder "How can I help someone with an eating disorder?" The key to the answer may be simpler than many people think.

Educating yourself can go a long way toward helping a loved one with an eating disorder. Not only will this give you a better idea of what the eating disorder itself entails, but it can help you better imagine and empathize with what your loved one is going through. That, in turn, can help inform the way you approach your loved one, which can make a big difference in how receptive they'll be toward your offer to help.

Educating yourself can also help you support someone with an eating disorder by making sure you don’t come to your loved one with inaccurate or harmful information related to disordered eating. But that also makes it important to ensure your information comes from reliable sources.

The most common types of eating disorders include:2

Scientific studies may be difficult to understand, but websites that cite them as sources are generally more reliable than those that don't. Government agencies, university programs, and venerated health institutions can also generally be trusted to have the most accurate information. And some nonprofits, including the National Eating Disorders Association, have long been working toward the promotion of accurate and trustworthy information on the topic.


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Researching how to help a person with an eating disorder

Searching "How to help someone with eating problems" may feel overwhelming. No matter what terms you use, you'll be hit with a ton of information, which may or may not actually be helpful.

When learning how to help someone with an eating disorder, it may be beneficial to focus on a few different topics.

What eating disorders look like

If you're unsure whether your loved one has an eating disorder, reading more about what these conditions look like can be helpful. Eating disorders all present differently, but often, there are hallmarks of these conditions.

Knowing the common signs and symptoms of eating disorders can not only help you confirm whether your loved one is struggling with one of these conditions, but it may also help you identify which eating disorder they're struggling with. This can help inform further research, allowing you to focus on more specific symptoms or ways to help.

showing three pairs of shoes of people standing in a circle

Eating disorder misconceptions

On the other side of the coin is knowing what eating disorders don't look like or entail. Understanding common misconceptions about eating disorders can not only help you better understand what your loved one is going through, but combat your own prejudices or misconceptions, to help you truly support someone with an eating disorder.

Some common eating disorder myths include:3

You have to be underweight to have an eating disorder
People with eating disorders only want attention
Parents are responsible for causing their child’s eating disorder
Eating disorders are a teen phase that will resolve
misconceptions of eating disorders graphic

Common co-occurring disorders

A large number of people with eating disorders struggle with co-occurring—or, comorbid—conditions. By some estimates, as many as 58% of eating disorder patients deal simultaneously with other psychological conditions.8

Learning about common co-occurring conditions for eating disorders can not only help broaden your understanding of the situation, but may be able to help you support someone with an eating disorder in different ways. For example, someone with co-occurring depression may respond to different types of help than someone with a co-occurring anxiety disorder.

co-occurring conditions graphic

How to approach someone with an eating disorder

Once you’ve learned as much as you can about eating disorders and your loved one’s specific condition, you may feel ready to approach them to discuss the situation.

Remember all you've learned about what your loved one is going through. This is likely a very distressing time for them, and even if you have the mindset of helping someone with an eating disorder, they may respond with defensiveness or denial.

If that happens, it's okay. It's likely your loved one isn't ready to discuss the problem. But there are some ways you can approach them that may increase the chance they will be receptive to what you have to say.

Here are some tips on how to talk to someone with an eating disorder:2

  • Choose an appropriate time to talk to them, when you will have sufficient privacy and no distractions or obligations.
  • Rehearse what you are going to say. You can even write down notes so you stay on message, don’t forget anything, or accidentally say something harmful or triggering.
  • Use “I” statements that focus on your observations, feelings, and concerns in a calm and nonjudgmental way. (“I am worried about how much you are working out.”)
  • Approach them from a compassionate place in which you remind your friend or family member that they are loved and supported. You may also gently remind them that many people struggle with eating disorders, and there’s no shame in seeking out help.
  • Prepare yourself for denial or defensiveness. Try not to react emotionally or negatively. Instead, be patient and remind yourself that they likely feel very threatened or attacked.
  • If they seem receptive and open to your concerns, encourage them to seek professional treatment.
  • Be patient and don’t give up if they respond negatively the first time you approach them. It can take several conversations before a person is willing to open up.

The above tips are best followed when your loved one’s immediate safety isn’t jeopardized. If your loved one is showing signs of mental or physical crisis, such as experiencing suicidal thoughts, expressing plans to kill themself, or experiencing serious medical complications, call 911 immediately and don’t leave their side.

What to avoid when helping someone with an eating disorder

Knowing what not to do or say when helping someone with an eating disorder is just as important as knowing what to do and say.

Certain approaches may be more likely to alienate your loved one or make them feel attacked or judged. This could cause them to shut you down, retreat into isolation, or become defensive and lash out. 

Some things to avoid when supporting someone with an eating disorder include:

Discussing their weight or appearance
Shaming or blaming
Using accommodating or enabling behaviors

Helping someone with an eating disorder find treatment

If your loved one responds positively to your concerns and wants to move forward with finding treatment, you can and should offer to help them. This can be a difficult process, so helping someone seek out professional help is one of the best ways to support someone with an eating disorder.

Generally, someone will need an official diagnosis from a primary care physician or psychiatrist before being eligible for covered treatment. Depending on their insurance, these doctors may need to be within the same insurance network. Certain treatment centers or methods also may or may not be covered.

Helping your friend understand what they'll have to do to get treatment and insurance coverage, and what that treatment may be like once they do enroll, can take a lot of pressure off of someone who's already struggling with an intense mental health condition.

You may offer to reach out to a clinic or medical professional on their behalf. You can help them schedule appointments, or possibly drive them to meet doctors or go to treatment, if you have the availability. You can also help someone research the best eating disorder treatment centers for them, or help them work through complications with insurance.

Within Health can help

Our care team will work with you to craft a plan for your family's unique situation and needs.

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Online eating disorder treatment

Determining the best treatment to help a loved one with an eating disorder

Eating disorder treatment is offered at several levels of care, meant to cater to symptoms that may be more or less severe.

Residential programs involve living full-time at a treatment facility for several weeks or months. It’s the most intensive option—outside of cases where someone's life is in immediate danger—and provides your loved one with the most structure and a strict routine, which is often helpful in the early stages of recovery.

Structured day programs, sometimes called partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), are a solid alternative for many people in need of higher-level care.1 They are often less expensive than a residential program and allow a patient to live and sleep at home but still provide robust treatment and rigorous schedules.

If your loved one's symptoms aren't as severe, they may benefit from outpatient treatment. This approach offers more flexibility, allowing people to continue working, attending school, or fulfilling other obligations while recovering from their eating disorder. Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) can be a helpful option for those who need more support than one or two weekly meetings with a therapist.

Eating disorder treatment is also available online, through virtual treatment programs, such as Within Health. At Within Health, we offer a modern and revolutionary approach to eating disorder recovery that allows individuals to heal from their condition no matter where they live.

Your loved one will receive a combination of offerings, such as:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group counseling
  • Group meal sessions
  • Meal delivery
  • Nutritional oversight
  • Movement oversight

Regardless of which level of care your loved one pursues, they’re going to need a solid support system at home. Even when thinking how to help someone with an eating disorder, it's not possible or healthy for you to try to be their entire support system. Rather, you can help someone build a reliable network of empowering and compassionate individuals by helping them reach out to others and encouraging them to join support groups.

How to support someone with an eating disorder at home

There are many ways you can support your child, partner, or family member at home after they complete an eating disorder treatment program.

Tips for cultivating a positive and healthy environment include:

  • Set a positive example by avoiding diets, negative body talk and self-criticism, and discussions related to weight loss or body size.
  • Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
  • Offer to go grocery shopping for them, or plan ahead with them what you will be eating and when, to avoid anxiety around the topic.
  • Eat together as a family and facilitate a positive environment that shows your loved one the joys of mealtime.
  • Promote self-esteem by supporting them in all their endeavors and empowering them to pursue whatever they’d like to pursue.
  • Encourage mindful and joyful movement, as opposed to goal-oriented exercise.
  • Don’t engage in a power struggle related to food; forcing someone to eat will only cause conflict and animosity.
  • Let your loved one know you are a safe space for them to vent or talk about challenges related to recovery.
  • Be aware of and avoid their triggers.
  • Encourage them to engage in safe online behaviors, such as unfollowing toxic or harmful accounts and limiting their time on social media.
  • Take care of your own physical, mental, and social health, and make sure you have your own support system in place.

Within Health offers eating disorder treatment at home, or on the go through our innovative treatment application. Speak to one of our clinical care team members today to learn about our revolutionary new approach to treatment.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.


  1. Levels of Care. (n.d.). University of California San Diego. Accessed August 2023. 
  2. Eating Disorders. (2016). National Institute of Mental Health. Accessed August 2023.
  3. Myths About Eating Disorders. (n.d.). University of Rochester Medical Center. Accessed August 2023.
  4. Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health. Accessed August 2023. 
  5. Rikani, A. A., Choudhry, Z., Choudhry, A. M., Ikram, H., Asghar, M. W., Kajal, D., Waheed, A., & Mobassarah, N. J. (2013). A critique of the literature on etiology of eating disorders. Annals of Neurosciences, 20(4), 157–161.
  6. Micali, N., De Stavola, B., Ploubidis, G., Simonoff, E., Treasure, J., & Field, A. E. (2015). Adolescent eating disorder behaviours and cognitions: gender-specific effects of child, maternal and family risk factors. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 207(4), 320–327.
  7. Danielsen, M., Bjørnelv, S., Weider, S., Myklebust, T. Å., Lundh, H., & Rø, Ø. (2020). The outcome at follow-up after inpatient eating disorder treatment: a naturalistic study. Journal of Eating Disorders, 8(1), 67.
  8. Hambleton, A., Pepin, G., Le, A., Maloney, D., Touyz, S., Maguire, S. (2022). Psychiatric and medical comorbidities of eating disorders: findings from a rapid review of the literature. Journal of Eating Disorders, 10, 132.
  9. How to help someone with an eating disorder. (2023). National Health Service. Accessed August 2023.
  10. Supporting someone with an eating disorder. (n.d.). Beat Eating Disorders. Accessed August 2023.


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