Eating disorders affect up to 30 million people of all ages and genders in the U.S.1 Eating disorders should be taken very seriously and can have very negative affects on people, including psychological damage as well as hospitalization. It can be difficult and uncomfortable to approach someone about their eating disorder, regardless of if you are a parent, friend, partner, family member, or acquaintance. However, no matter what your relationship is, you can play an important role in guiding and supporting someone to recovery.1 While it is impossible to provide step-by-step instructions that are guaranteed to work when approaching someone with an eating disorder, we will provide advice and recommendations as a general guide on how to help someone with an eating disorder. It is important to express your concerns for this person in a loving and supportive manner. Different approaches work for difference people, and patience is key. Remember that it is better to say something than to ignore the problem.1
How to Identify an Eating Disorder
It might be difficult to identify an eating disorder early on. They can commonly be disguised as someone being weight-conscious, normal weight concerns, or dieting. However, as an eating disorder becomes more serious, it will most likely become easier to spot.2 Many people suffering from eating disorders will want to hide their problem from their peers so it is important to look for any of the common signs listed below and be extremely aware if you suspect anything.2
Restricting food behaviors
A person with an eating disorder might frequently skip meals or say that they are not hungry when it comes times to eat. They might become “disgusted” by foods that they once used to consider their favorite meal, or might cook for an entire house and then refuse to eat the tasty meal that they made.3 Other common signs of an eating disorder are consistently reading food labels, eating very small portions, or obsessively counting the calories of the food they consume. You may also see people with a disorder buying or taking laxatives or diet pills, including Adderall or Ritalin to keep them from being hungry.4 These changes in diet can cause exhaustion, feelings of low energy, and also fainting.
It is also important to watch for signs of a binge eating disorder. Eating alone, at night, or in secret are common in this case. Someone suffering from this disorder will eat excessive amounts of food in a short amount of time and might leave clues of empty food containers, boxes, or packages. Refrigerators and food cabinets will usually be cleared out and you might find hidden stashes of high-calorie foods such as sweets and snack food.3
You may also want to look out for a friend who is constantly taking trips to the bathroom after they eat. This might indicate that they are going to the bathroom to vomit.2 Someone vomiting in the bathroom might use the sound of running water from a sink or shower to hide the sounds. An eating disorder may be hinted at with the use of breath mints, mouthwash, and cologne or deodorant to hide any smells that might give them away.2 If you have heard your friend throw up after eating, it is most likely time to talk to them about a possible eating disorder they may have.
Changing thoughts and beliefs
A person with an eating disorder often has the mindset that if they are skinnier, they will be happier.3 You should watch out for constant complaints about their body or looks. People suffering from an eating disorder might lose the ability to think clearly and will have a distorted sense of what is healthy and what is not. They may become irrational and may make decisions that do not align with their previous values and beliefs. It is also common for these people to be jealous of others, specifically skinnier people.3 Watch out for friends who start wearing baggy clothes or layers to hide any changes in their body.
Distorted body image or changed appearance
When identifying an eating disorder, you may want to look out for excessive exercising, even when they are sick or exhausted. This person may justify compulsive exercising by saying that they are making up for excess calories consumed the day before.4 They may like to compete with others about how little they have eaten that day. For example, if a friend boasts about how they have only eaten a breakfast shake and a few pieces of celery that day, this should be a red flag indicating an eating disorder.
What To Do if a Loved One has an Eating Disorder
1. Set up a time to talk in a safe place. This place should be in a private area and be free from distractions.4 Tell them what you have noticed and that you are worried about them. Be honest and open, but do not attack them. Try to listen to what they say, understand what they are dealing with, and remember to be supportive.
2. Do your research. Learn as much as you can from reliable sources about this person’s potential problem and get an idea of what they are going through.4 There is a wide variety of websites, documentaries, and books about personal stories that can help you relate to their struggle and be more knowledgeable. You should share what you have learned with your loved one if it is appropriate, but be careful not to preach or sound like you are lecturing them.
3. Communicate your concerns and ask how you can help. It is usually helpful to give specific examples of things they did that made you worried for their health. Tell them that you want them to be healthy again and ask, “What can I do to help you?”4 This is a much better approach then telling them to eat more or exercise less, which will not be effective in changing your friend’s actions.
4. Know your limits. Part of being a good friend is approaching someone if you see a problem that is threatening their health. However, this does not mean that it is your responsibility or that it is even possible for you to singlehandedly to fix the problem. Many times, concerns need to be discussed with a professional, such as a nutritionist, counselor or doctor, in order to see significant improvement.5 These people are equipped to deal with eating disorders and have much more experience in the matter. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can offer to accompany your friend to see a health professional, which might provide them with a sense of security.5 By offering, you can show your friend that you support them getting help and they may not feel so alone in the process.
5. Focus on qualities other than looks. It is probably best to stay away from all conversations and comments that deal with the physical appearances of peers and celebrities.4 It is recommended that you be cautious when talking about topics involving food, weight or even clothes. These subjects can bring back negative thoughts of body image and cause obsessiveness over looks. Instead, focus on talking to your friend about inner qualities that do not have to do with appearance or size.4 For example, emphasize what a good friend they are, or how good they are at a sport, or how funny and lighthearted they are. It will help them realize that there are more important qualities to a person than looks.
6. Try not to be too watchful of your friend’s eating habits. This can have the opposite effect that you want it to have and make your friend question your motives. You may come off as judgmental or just as trying to make them regain weight. Remember that eating disorders are very complicated and encouraging someone to eat more will not be effective in fixing the problem.4
7. Be supportive! Remind your friend of your continued support and remind them that you want them to be happy and healthy. This is probably hard time for both of you so do not be afraid to seek help from a professional yourself.5 Tell your friend that you are there for them no matter what. Sometimes even asking, “What would make you feel better?” will help your friend open up and lead to a conversation that will give you better insight to how they are feeling.
How to support them through the difficult healing process
First of all, realize that this person will not change their ways until they want to. You cannot force them to see things the way you do, especially before they are ready. However, you can talk about all of the advantages that a healthy life has.3 The recovery process is a difficult time for someone with an eating disorder, and it is not an overnight fix. It is often a very long process that comes with the realization that one cannot gain self-confidence or satisfaction through starvation or overeating.
Remember that your friend is still a normal person! Do fun things with them and plan activities that you both can enjoy, such as seeing a movie or going on a shopping trip.3 These activities can act as reminders of some of the benefits of living a healthy life.
Overall, we want to emphasize the importance of patience. If you think your friend, family member or someone else you know may have an eating disorder, it is always best for you to say something and try to help.3 They may not admit that they have a problem at first and they may not want to change, since these problems are usually deeply rooted, but by admitting that there is a problem, this person can take the first step in living a healthier life. It is important for these people to understand that you will support them in any way that you can in their journey to recovery.
Visit our resources page if you would like to speak with a professional about any of these issues: http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/sexinfo/article/important-phone-numbersresources
1. "How to Help." Central Region Eating Disorder Services. Ocular, 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2016.
2. "Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder." Help Guide: A Trusted Non-profit Guide to Mental Health & Well-being. Helpguide.org, 2015. Web.
3. "ANRED: Eating Disorders Warning Signs." Anred. N.p., 2016. Web.
4. "I Think My Friend May Have an Eating Disorder. What Should I Do?" KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, 2016.
5. "What Should I Say?" National Eating Disorders Association. NEDA, Feeding Hope., 17 Feb. 2016. Web.
Last Updated: 27 February 2016.