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How to help someone with bulimia

It can be incredibly difficult when someone you love is struggling with bulimia nervosa (BN). You may feel hopeless, like you’re stuck on the sidelines, watching as your loved one continues to battle their disorder.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help someone with bulimia on their journey toward recovery. Here are a few tips on how to help a friend with bulimia.1,2,3

Last updated on 
October 24, 2023
October 24, 2023
Helping someone with bulimia
In this article

Educate yourself

They say that knowledge is power, and it can be an especially formidable tool when it comes to dealing with something as complex as an eating disorder.

The benefits of educating yourself on bulimia nervosa are twofold: it can help you better understand the disorder, which can help you better understand what your loved one is going through; and it can help you learn more about what else you can do to support someone with bulimia.

Get familiar with signs and symptoms
Build understanding and empathy

Talk to them

Learning more about bulimia nervosa can also help prepare you to better talk to your loved one about what's going on, giving you a baseline of knowledge to draw from to help you better relate to their experience.

If they haven’t yet sought treatment, talking to them can be especially valuable. It may be the encouragement they need to seek out treatment or finally feel heard. It can also be helpful for someone with an eating disorder who may be in denial to let them know that their symptoms are, in fact, noticed.

How to talk to someone with bulimia

When you're trying to help a friend with bulimia, the way you approach the conversation is very important.

Even if you’re feeling frightened or angry about the situation, try to gently describe your observations and concerns. Use “I” statements and stick to sharing observations about food behaviors, things they have said, or changes in personality rather than commenting on their body and weight. Most importantly, let the person know you are coming from a place of love.

It may be helpful to write down what you want to say first, or at least make a list of major points you want to touch on. Practicing what you want to say out loud can also help you find the right tone of voice.

If your loved one is already in recovery, it’s still important to keep lines of communication open. In these cases, it's not as much about how to help someone with bulimia as how to support someone with bulimia. If your loved one is seeking professional help, they’ll be under the care of a mental health professional and may benefit most from having you there to listen in an empathetic way.

Remote treatment may be a more convenient and suitable option for some. Learn more about the benefits and experience of remote treatment at Within.

Learn more

Bulimia nervosa can be rooted in emotional trauma and complications, and discussing a person’s eating disorder may bring painful and powerful feelings to the surface. It’s important to be prepared for many different reactions to your approach, including denial or anger, and to try to not take these reactions personally.

Seek acceptance

While living with an eating disorder is difficult, it can be equally hard watching a loved one's eating disorder continue to negatively impact their life. So when helping a loved one with bulimia, it's important to also help yourself.

During your loved one’s experience with an eating disorder, it’s important to be compassionate with yourself, even as you may struggle with feeling ashamed or like you’ve failed. Even the act of reaching out can assure the person they’re not alone, they’re loved, and they’re supported.

You can learn about the common symptoms and potential triggers for bulimia nervosa, gently raise your concerns, and offer your support. But ultimately, your loved one must be the one who takes the steps towards recovery. When you have so little control over something so important, cultivating a sense of acceptance about the situation can be not only helpful but necessary.

Look for treatment options

One of the biggest ways to help someone with bulimia nervosa is to learn about eating disorder treatment options that may be helpful for them. Eating disorders treated early on have been tied to more positive recovery behaviors.6

In general, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective treatments for bulimia nervosa and widely considered the leading treatment for BN.5 And for adolescents, family therapy has also been found to be particularly effective for curbing binge eating habits and purging behaviors.4

Remote treatment for bulimia

Within Health is also here to help people with bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders. Our program draws on many types of treatment modalities, with our team of multidisciplinary experts crafting unique treatment plans for each patient, all within a clinically-superior virtual setting.

Reach out to our team to learn more about the first steps in treatment for bulimia nervosa.

Get help today

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. Hogan, L. (2021, September 9). How to Support Someone With an Eating Disorder. WebMD. Accessed October 2023. 
  2. How to help someone with an eating disorder. (n.d.). United Kingdom National Health Services. Accessed October 2023.
  3. Supporting someone with an eating disorder. (n.d.). Beat Eating Disorders. Accessed October 2023. 
  4. Rienecke, R. D. (2017). Family-based treatment of eating disorders in adolescents: current insights. Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics, 8: 69–79.
  5. Murphy, R., Straebler, S., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for eating disorders. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(3), 611–627.
  6. Koreshe, E., Paxton, S., Miskovic-Wheatley, J. et al. (2023). Prevention and early intervention in eating disorders: findings from a rapid review. Journal of Eating Disorders, 11, 38. 
  7. Clausen, L. (2020). Perspectives on Involuntary Treatment of Anorexia Nervosa. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 533288.


How to help someone with bulimia who doesn't want help?

This can be one of the most difficult situations for anyone with a loved one who struggles with an eating disorder. And the answer is equally as difficult: There is sometimes very little that can be done.

Continuing to offer your support, look into treatment options, and try to speak with your friend about their condition are some of the only options in your control. A majority of the recovery process, including the decision to pursue help, is in the hands of the person who is struggling.

In some cases, it may be possible to force someone into treatment, though this is generally considered a controversial and unadvisable idea.7 If your loved one is struggling with a severe eating disorder or exhibiting signs of a mental or physical health crisis, you can call 9-1-1 or another form of emergency help. Otherwise, continuing to do what you can and working on building acceptance may be the most helpful moves.

What can I do to help someone with bulimia?

There's a lot you can do to help a friend with bulimia or support someone with bulimia.

Educating yourself on their condition can help you better understand what they're going through, combat misinformation, and keep an eye out for signs, symptoms, or potential triggers.

Reaching out to talk can also be helpful, providing your loved one with a source of support and a sense that they are not alone. Listening to them with an open heart, patience, and understanding can go a long way.

And helping your friend look into treatment options can also help ensure they find the best possible path to recovery.

How to talk to someone with bulimia?

One of the best ways to support someone with bulimia is learning the best ways to talk to them.

If it's the first time you're approaching them about your concerns, make sure you choose a private environment and a time when they're feeling relaxed or don't have anything else going on. Resist the urge to bring the subject up during a mealtime.

While talking with your friend, it's also important to utilize "I" statements. This helps keep the focus on your observations—which should be as factual as possible and not include any comments on their weight, body, or appearance—and helps prevent the person from feeling accused or ganged up on.

Still, even when delivered perfectly, this type of talk can cause any number of reactions in someone with bulimia nervosa. Eating disorders are very sensitive issues, and someone may react with anger, denial, or embarrassment. If this happens, it's okay. The most important thing is opening up the line of communication.

But above all else, the best way to talk to someone with bulimia is to listen. Listen openly and empathetically and do your best not to cast judgment on what they say, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Having a safe space to share concerns can be one of the most fundamental aspects of eating disorder recovery.

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