How to Support Someone Who Has an Eating Disorder

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If you suspect that someone in your life may be suffering from an eating disorder, you might feel anxious or confused about how to proceed.

Perhaps you are already supporting a loved one who is healing from an eating disorder, and you’re looking for additional guidance.

A review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the lifetime prevalence of eating disorders was 8.4% for women and 2.2% for men [1]. Eating disorders — which include anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder — are serious mental health disorders that can affect a person’s behavior, well-being, and physical health.

In some cases, eating disorders can be life-threatening. But showing up and caring for a person in your life who may be struggling with an eating disorder can make a difference. And fortunately, there is guidance available when it comes to the best ways to offer support.

Supporting Someone Who Might Have an Eating Disorder

When it comes to eating disorder recovery, giving and receiving help can be a delicate process. Often, one of the first crucial steps is educating yourself about these complex conditions. This can include learning about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders and understanding how they can affect someone.

Depending on the individual and the eating disorder they may be suffering from, common signs might include fear of weight gain, skipping meals, or eating unusually large quantities of food. Someone who has an eating disorder may also experience physical symptoms, such as stomach pain, dizziness, and fatigue.

Many government and advocacy organizations provide resources that can help you deepen your knowledge about the symptoms, effects, and treatment approaches associated with different eating disorders.

One important thing to understand is that struggling with an eating disorder can cause someone to experience painful and conflicting emotions that can get in the way of recovery. These emotions can include shame, feelings of low self-worth, and ambivalence about the need for support or treatment.

At the same time, many people who suffer from eating disorders also experience social isolation. A study in Psychiatry International found that people who were struggling with eating disorders reported more loneliness and lower levels of social support compared with healthy control participants [2].

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Handling Difficult Conversations and Offering Support

When you express concern for a loved one who may be struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to remain respectful and empathetic while advocating for your loved one’s health and well-being. Trust can be critical to this process.

It’s also important to keep in mind how challenging it can be to live with an eating disorder. Even though you may believe that there are simple solutions available, the process of change can feel much more difficult for a person who is struggling with eating disorder symptoms.

Try to avoid explaining what might be right or wrong about the person’s behavior or thinking. Instead, many sources advise sticking to observable facts and “I” statements. For example, you might say, “I noticed that you don’t eat as much as you used to,” and, “I’m concerned about you.”

At all times, it’s best to focus on health and wellness rather than someone’s appearance. This is a chance to combat unhealthy messages about body image and provide a safe environment for your loved one.

Here are some additional points to keep in mind:

  • Providing friendship and support for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder may help them reduce feelings of isolation, which can be a step forward.
  • Being sensitive to the ways you interact with your loved one can also be important. For example, try to choose activities that can help reduce stress and support healthy behaviors.
  • Helping your loved one reconnect with important goals in their life may also nudge them along the path to recovery.

Being an Ally in the Treatment Process

If your loved one is unsure about seeking treatment for an eating disorder, you can help make the process easier. You might help with finding treatment, attending appointments, or providing encouragement if things don’t go as planned or a program or provider is not the best fit.

A range of treatment options are available for people who are struggling with eating disorders, depending on their needs. These can include inpatient care, residential treatment, and partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient programs.

Medical care — for example, through a primary care provider or treatment program — can be a critical component of eating disorder recovery. Encouraging your loved one to check on their physical health or treat symptoms that are bothering them may prompt them to start addressing other areas of their well-being.

Support from family members can be valuable for both the individual and the healthcare provider during treatment [3]. For teens, involving family members in treatment may also improve treatment outcomes [3].

Employers and schools can also serve as allies for people who are either struggling with eating disorders or supporting loved ones who are struggling with eating disorders. Creating safe environments and flexible policies that can support people’s recovery efforts may go a long way.

Support System

As you navigate recovery with a loved one, the following points may be helpful to remember:

  • Recovering from an eating disorder can be a long-term process, often involving successes and setbacks.
  • Support groups, family programming, and other resources for carers and loved ones are available.
  • Your own well-being is important. Take care of yourself and seek support when you need it.

Supporting someone who has an eating disorder can feel overwhelming. However, it may help to remember that recovery can be a multifaceted process involving both clinical recovery (reduction of symptoms) and personal recovery (living a fuller life) [4]. Factors that can contribute to someone’s personal recovery include meaningful relationships and positive life experiences [4].

References

[1] Galmiche, M., Déchelotte, P., Lambert, G., & Tavolacci, M.P. (2019). Prevalence of eating disorders over the 2000-2018 period: A systematic literature review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition109(5). 1402–1413. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy342

[2] Makri, E., Michopoulos, I., & Gonidakis, F. (2022). Investigation of loneliness and social support in patients with eating disorders: A case-control study. Psychiatry International3(2), 142–157. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/psychiatryint3020012

[3] National Institute of Mental Health. 2021. Eating disorders: About more than food. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders

[4] National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. What is recovery? https://anad.org/get-informed/what-is-recovery/


About Timberline Knolls

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Timberline Knolls is a residential treatment center located on 43 beautiful acres just outside Chicago, offering a nurturing recovery environment for women and girls age 12 and older who are struggling with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health conditions. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is available for step-down and for women to directly admit. By serving with uncompromising care, relentless compassion, and an unconditional joyful spirit, we help our residents and clients help themselves in their recovery. For more information, please visit www.timberlineknolls.com.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on August 31, 2022. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 31, 2022