How to help someone with an eating disorder

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If you are concerned a loved one has an eating disorder, we understand you may be feeling scared or overwhelmed. It can be challenging to approach someone you love about disordered eating behaviors—especially because they are likely feeling ashamed and guilty about their eating habits. They may not even realize it themselves. But you are doing the right thing by researching how to help. Here are some tips that can help you support your friend, child, or family member throughout the recovery process, from expressing your concerns to finding treatment to post-treatment support.

Last updated on 
March 17, 2022
In this article

Educate yourself

Before approaching someone with an eating disorder, you’ll want to educate yourself so you don’t come to your loved one with inaccurate or harmful information related to disordered eating. 

Every eating disorder presents differently. But, generally, an eating disorder involves a severe and continuous pattern of disturbed eating behaviors and distressing emotions and thoughts. An eating disorder severely affects a person’s social, psychological, and physical functioning.

Approximately five percent of the population meets the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. Most eating disorders develop in adolescence and young adulthood, although they can affect people of all ages. (1)

The most common types of eating disorders include: (2)

  • Anorexia nervosa, including atypical anorexia nervosa 
  • Bulimia nervosa, including atypical bulimia nervosa 
  • Binge eating disorder

Eating disorders often co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorders, mood disorders, or substance use disorders. The presence of a comorbid condition can complicate recovery, as both disorders affect one another. Treatment for co-occurring disorders should be comprehensive and integrated and fully address the scope of an individual’s challenges. (1)

Misconceptions about eating disorders

One way you can help someone with an eating disorder is to educate yourself on the misconceptions surrounding these conditions. Pop culture, stigma, and prejudice have contributed to many myths that perpetuate harm and prevent people from getting the help they need.

Here are some common eating disorder myths: (3)

  • You have to be underweight to have an eating disorder: Eating disorders affect people of all body shapes and sizes, including larger bodies.
  • Only teen girls and young women have eating disorders: People of all ages and genders are affected by eating disorders, including cis men, trans people, and nonbinary individuals, from children to older adults.
  • People with eating disorders only want attention: This myth is extremely harmful and can further stigmatize individuals living with an eating disorder. An eating disorder is a severe mental condition that can have life-threatening consequences. People with eating disorders have to navigate compulsive and uncontrollable disordered eating behaviors, profound feelings of shame and guilt on a daily basis. 
  • Parents are responsible for causing their child’s eating disorder: Parents cannot cause an eating disorder to develop in their child. Blaming a parent isn’t helpful for the parent, the child, or for the child’s recovery. There is no single cause for an eating disorder. They are very complex, with many different risk factors. Although family history may play a role, it is not the parent’s fault.
  • Eating disorders are a teen phase that will resolve: It’s true that eating disorders often develop in adolescence. But they are not a phase that will go away on their own. They are severe, potentially life-threatening conditions that require specialized treatment and care.

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 treatment options. Remember, this is a very distressing time for your friend or family member, and they may respond with defensiveness or denial—and that’s okay. But there are some ways you can approach your loved one from a compassionate and nonjudgmental place to increase the chance they will be receptive.

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

  • 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 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 loving and caring place in which you remind your friend or family member there’s no shame in admitting that they need help, and that many people struggle with eating disorders.
  • 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 only if your loved one’s immediate safety isn’t jeopardized. If your loved one is in crisis, such as experiencing suicidal thoughts, expressing plans to kill themself, or experiencing medical complications, like a seizure or heart arrhythmia, call 911 immediately and don’t leave their side.

How to help

What to avoid

Knowing what to avoid when helping someone with an eating disorder is just as important as knowing what to do and say. Certain approaches may alienate your loved one or make them feel attacked or judged. This could cause them to retreat into isolation or become defensive and lash out. 

Below are some things to avoid when approaching them:

  • Discussing their weight or appearance: Your loved one is already extremely preoccupied by their appearance and weight. Pointing out their weight, even with good intentions, can trigger them. Instead, ask about their feelings related to these things, and reassure them that they are in a safe space to express themself.
  • Shaming or blaming: Your friend or family member already feels a great deal of shame related to their eating disorder. What they need right now is a nonjudgmental confidant who understands that eating disorders often develop as a way to cope with negative emotions. Avoid “you” statements, and replace them with “I” statements in which you express how you feel.
  • Ultimatums: Unless you’re approaching a minor, you can’t force your loved one to get eating disorder care. They must be the one to decide to make a positive change in their life and begin the recovery process. Ultimatums may cause them to resent you or to increase their secretive behaviors.
  • Offering cliched advice: Eating disorders are complex conditions. Your loved one’s eating disorder isn’t going to magically go away if you encourage them to accept themself or to love themself the way they are. 

Helping a loved one find treatment

If your loved one responds positively to your concerns and wants to move forward with finding treatment, you can offer to help them, so they don’t have to do it alone. You may want to offer to reach out to a professional for them if they are feeling anxious about it. In-person eating disorder treatment can occur in an inpatient or outpatient setting. Inpatient treatment involves residing at the facility for the duration of the program. It’s the most intensive option and provides your loved one with the most structure and a strict routine, which is often helpful in the early stages of recovery.

Meanwhile, outpatient treatment offers more flexibility for people who want to continue working, attending school, or fulfilling other obligations while recovering from their eating disorder. If your loved one chooses this option, they’re going to need a solid support system at home. It’s not possible or healthy for you to try to be their entire support system, so help them build a reliable network of empowering and compassionate individuals. 

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

Lastly, your family member or friend may choose to attend therapy instead of a treatment program. Finding a therapist that is a good match isn’t always easy. If they don’t like the first counselor they meet, encourage them to seek out a different treatment professional until they find someone they like. At Within Health, we perform a comprehensive diagnostic intake, so we pair each individual with a therapist who best meets their needs.

How to support them 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.
  • Try to offer a variety of food options
  • Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy”
  • Learn how to practice mindful eating
  • 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. 

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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.

Resources

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2021). What are Eating Disorders?
  2. National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Eating Disorders.
  3. University of Rochester Medical Center. (n.d.). Myths About Eating Disorders.

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