Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder

It is difficult to support a loved one struggling with an eating disorder. Many find themselves reeling as they try to understand what their loved one is going through, what they can say, or how they can help. While so much of the work toward recovery must come from the individual themselves, there are things that you can do to support them in this journey.

calling for help

Recognize the Signs

Identifying that your loved one may be in trouble can be tough when you have a “bad feeling” but don’t know exactly what you are looking for. Those outside of the eating disorder treatment realm often don’t have even an awareness of how to identify red flags of eating disorder behaviors or beliefs. Consider the following areas if you have suspicions that someone in your life is struggling.

Their Speech

A key indicator of disordered eating can lie in the beliefs that individuals have around food, bodies, exercise, and self-worth. These beliefs can be gleaned from how they speak about these subjects. If an individual’s conversations appear to be hyper-fixated on losing weight, altering themselves, thinness, food, nutritional content, exercise regimens and other aspects of food and body, it is important to notice this, ask more questions, and gently challenge any dangerous beliefs.

Their Behaviors

An individual’s actions will also indicate if they are struggling with disordered eating thoughts and behaviors. For example, acting on the hyperfixations mentioned above through extreme meal and exercise alterations should be cause for concern, particularly if the individual is tying their ability to “successfully” do so to their sense of self-worth. Other behavioral warning signs of an eating disorder include:

  • Counting calories.
  • Eating alone.
  • Severe and sudden weight loss.
  • Refusing to eat or increasingly reporting they are “not hungry” or “already ate.”
  • Increased discussion of body, exercise, and food.
  • Hiding food.
  • Hoarding of laxatives and/or diuretics.
  • Using the restroom more often, particularly during or after meals.
  • Weighing themselves often and/or fixating on the number on the scale.

Women Weighing Herself

How to Talk to a Loved One About an Eating Disorder

Reading above, you may have asked yourself what it means to “gently challenge” your loved one regarding their disordered beliefs and speech. Be aware, you must have a trusted relationship with the individual before challenging them. If the dynamic is supportive and trusting and your loved one says something such as “I need to lose weight,” you are in a position gently ask them why they believe that is necessary, what they hope to gain, and even ask if they truly think losing weight will lead to what they are searching for. The key to gently approaching this discussion with your loved one is using non-judgment, meeting them on their level as opposed to approaching from “above” them, and emphasizing often that you love and care for them.

If your loved one is engaging in the above behaviors or more clear signs that an eating disorder is present, you might find it necessary to go beyond challenging beliefs and, instead, asking directly if they are engaging in behaviors. Use the same approach as above, be prepared to name what behaviors you are noticing, and approach the conversation from a place of concern and curiosity. You might say, “This is difficult for me to ask, however, I notice you are focused more on the content of food and your body and have been eating less when we are together. I am worried about you and, if you are struggling, I want to know how I can support you.” Allow your loved one to then share their experience and speak as you listen supportively. This approach does not mean they will automatically acknowledge a problem, however, it will open the door for open discussion.

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Group Counseling

Eating Disorder Help

You might also have a desire to help your loved one in seeking out more professional help and support. Again, this is unlikely to be something you have an education on, therefore, knowing where to begin and how to proceed is daunting. A helpful first step would be to encourage your loved one to speak with their Primary Care Provider, Psychiatrist, or Therapist about their behaviors. These professionals can make the appropriate referrals for your loved one.

Additionally, eating disorder advocacy and education websites and organizations such as Eating Disorder Hope or the National Eating Disorders Association have pages dedicated to resources. These resources are not limited to professionals and also often have supportive articles for your loved one, educational articles that can inform them how to approach and receive treatment, as well as virtual support groups that might be helpful.

The level of care your loved one will need will vary depending on the severity of their disorder. Regardless of the level of care, all individuals with eating disorders are seen to have better recovery results if they are treated by a multidisciplinary team. This means, at minimum, they would benefit from seeing a therapist, dietitian, and psychiatrist.

As your loved one navigates finding appropriate treatment and providers, you might feel as if there is nothing you can do. Recognize that you can be a barometer for your loved one’s recovery growth at times. You cannot engage in their treatment as a treatment team member, however, they are likely to listen to you in moments of ambivalence or struggle. You can provide your loved one with validation for their efforts and encouragement for them to keep going.

You play an instrumental role in your loved one’s journey. You cannot achieve recovery for them, however, you can provide them the foundational support and care they need to approach recovery courageously.


Author: Margot Rittenhouse, MS, LPC, NCC
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