Binge Eating Disorder: How You Can Help

Medically Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on April 08, 2015
4 min read

“It’s not about the food. It’s a way of coping with emotions.” That’s the No. 1 thing to remember when you live with, or parent, someone who has binge eating disorder, says Chelsea Kronengold, a grad student in psychology at Columbia University. She should know -- she was diagnosed 2 years ago.

What else can you do to support and empower someone who has this condition as they try to recover? You need to learn:

  • How to offer encouragement
  • What to expect during the process

These tips can help you get started.

People who binge eat often feel alone and ashamed of their food habits. They usually feel bad about their bodies, too.

Guilt and shame are key parts of the disorder, Kronengold says. That’s why it’s important not to be critical of your loved one’s appearance or weight. That will only keep the cycle going.

Instead, make it clear you’re concerned about her health. Encourage her to work on getting her binge eating under control, says Cynthia Bulik, PhD, founding director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders.

And let her know you're behind her every step of the way, says Abigail Natenshon, author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder. The message should be that she can get better, she can do whatever it takes to heal, and there is good professional help out there.

It's important to understand what causes eating disorders and how they affect lives, Natenshon says. And to know that they can be cured.

Information can come from many sources. If you don’t know much, read up on the disorder. You can start online or check with a group like the National Eating Disorders Association, where Kronengold is a spokeswoman.

If you’re a parent or caregiver, you can turn to your loved one’s health care team for information and advice. Did the doctor suggest treatment? Which type do they need? Learn the difference between outpatient therapy and inpatient therapy.

This condition can put a strain on any family or relationship. And like other challenges you share, talking about it can help. It's also important to realize that you’re not going to solve it all during a single conversation.

One place to talk it out is in family therapy. That can be a good option if a child has this condition. But remember, you have to keep it honest. "The more open the dialogue can be within the family therapy session, the more open it will be between the parent and child at home," Natenshon says.

If you’re both adults, and your loved one is in individual therapy, you may not be in the counseling session with her. But you can work to discuss things openly when issues arise at home. "Just keep talking ... and listening," Natenshon suggests. In the end, she'll decide for herself whether or not to act on the ideas you offer.

And remember, this condition affects you, too.Families and caregivers also need take care of themselves, and seek out help and support when they are caring for a loved one with an eating disorder,” Kronengold says.

Don’t focus on food and eating every time you’re together. Go out and do things that don't involve either. Take a walk, visit a museum, or catch the latest movie.

Mealtime can be challenging for people with binge eating disorder. And their binges are more likely to happen between meals, Kronengold says.

So help your loved one look at food in a new way. Family meal-planning and cooking are fun ways to set new eating patterns, she says. Keep in mind that "healthy" doesn't always have to mean low calorie or low fat. Instead, focus on foods that nourish your body.

If you’re the one who stocks the pantry, load up on nutritious foods, Bulik says. "Imagine if your partner quit smoking and you came in and lit up a cigarette and blew smoke in their face. Having potato chips or cookies around someone who binge eats is the same kind of temptation.”

You can also offer to do the prep work before the meal and clean up after. Don’t set your loved one up for a fall.

With the right treatment, binge eating disorder can be cured -- but sometimes it takes a few tries. Watch for habits that can signal a setback. You might notice that they:

  • Cut back on food or skip meals
  • Hide candy wrappers under the bed
  • Eat in secret
  • Seem depressed

Don’t overdo it. You can’t react to every bite of food she eats. She’ll feel like she’s "under the microscope all the time," Bulik says.

If you see warning signs, don't accuse. Instead, start a conversation. Natenshon suggests you say something like, "I noticed you're not eating today. You seem sad. I'm worried about you. Just know that I'm here if you'd like to talk."