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How to Help Someone
with an Eating Disorder

Are you worried that a friend or family member might have an eating disorder? It’s not easy to watch someone suffer in front of your eyes, especially when the solution seems so simple and easy. The truth is more complex.

Eating disorders are not really about the food or the weight. They are attempts to deal with emotional and stress-related issues. You cannot force a person with an eating disorder to change or seek help, but you can offer your support and encourage treatment. This guide is meant to be a tool for how to offer support to someone with an eating disorder.

First let’s take a look at the facts.

Facts About Eating Disorders

What Are Eating Disorders?

    • Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. They are treatable. The sooner someone gets the treatment he or she needs, the better the chance of a good recovery.


    • Eating disorders are NOT choices, passing fads, or phases. Eating disorders are severe and can be fatal.


    • Eating disorders can be recognized by a persistent pattern of unhealthy eating or dieting behavior that can cause health problems and/or emotional and social distress.


    • Eating disorders occur all over the world, especially in industrialized regions or countries.


    • The three official categories of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). EDNOS includes many types of eating disorders, such as purging, in the absence of binge eating, meeting some but not all of the symptoms of anorexia or bulimia nervosa, and chewing and spitting out food. Binge eating disorder falls officially under the EDNOS category and is marked by recurrent episodes of binge eating in the absence of compensatory behaviors. However, binge eating disorder is expected to be its own classifiable disorder in the new DSM-5 due out in May 2013.


    • Although there are formal guidelines that health care professionals use to diagnose eating disorders (DSM-IV-TR; APA, 2000), unhealthy eating behaviors exist on a continuum. Even if a person does not meet the formal criteria for an eating disorder, he or she may be experiencing unhealthy eating behaviors that cause substantial distress and may be damaging to both physical and psychological health.


Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder

In the early stages, it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between an eating disorder and normal self-consciousness, weight concerns, or dieting. As eating disorders progress, the red flags become easier to spot. However, a person with an eating disorder will often go to great lengths to hide the problem, so it’s important to know the warning signs.

Here Are Some Common Warning Signs:

  • Preoccupation with body or weight.
  • Obsession with calories, food, or nutrition.
  • Constant dieting, even when thin.
  • Rapid, unexplained weight loss or weight gain.
  • Taking laxatives or diet pills.
  • Compulsive exercising.
  • Making excuses to get out of eating.
  • Avoiding social situations that involve food.
  • Going to the bathroom right after meals.
  • Eating alone, at night, or in secret.
  • Hoarding high-calorie foods.

Helping Someone With an Eating Disorder

Attempting to help someone face his or her eating disorder is an undertaking that requires much planning and sensitivity. Here are some tips for doing so.

How Do I Voice My Concern About Someone’s Eating Disorder?

When approaching a friend or family member about an eating disorder, it is important to communicate your concerns in a loving and non-confrontational way. Pick an appropriate time when you can speak to the person in private. Try to remain calm and open-minded.
Your loved one may deny having an eating disorder or may become angry and defensive.

However, it is important you don’t give up without being pushy. It may take some time before your loved one is willing to open up and admit to having a problem. Still, as difficult as it is to know that someone you love has an eating disorder, you cannot force someone to change.

Unless it’s a young child, the decision to seek recovery has to come from them. But you can still help by making it clear that whether the person decides to seek treatment at this time, you will still be there to support him/her if and when treatment becomes a desire down the road.

Here Are Some Tips For Speaking With the Person:

    • Be careful to avoid critical or accusatory statements, as this will only make your friend or family member defensive. Instead, focus on the specific behaviors that worry you.


    • Focus on feelings and relationships, not on weight and food.


    • Tell them you are concerned about their health, but respect their privacy.


    • Do not comment on how they look. The person is already too aware of his or her body. Even if you are trying to compliment them, comments about weight or appearance only reinforce their obsessions with body image and weight.


    • Avoid power struggles about eating. Do not demand that they change. Do not criticize their eating habits. Trying to trick or force them to eat can make things worse.


    • Avoid placing shame, blame, or guilt on the person regarding their actions or attitudes.


    • Avoid giving simple solutions (e.g. “Just eat”). These “solutions” will come off as insensitive and ignorant.


Seeking Professional Help:

Aside from offering support, the most important thing you can do for a person with an eating disorder is to encourage treatment. The longer an eating disorder remains undiagnosed and untreated, the harder it is on the body and the more difficult to overcome.

It is also helpful that you seek support for yourself, because it is often emotionally taxing to watch a loved one suffer.

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