How to Support Someone With an Eating Disorder

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 09, 2021
3 min read

Being in the grips of an eating disorder can disrupt someone’s mind in a very real way. They may or may not realize that they have this problem. If they do acknowledge it, they may have conflicting feelings about seeking treatment or changing their behavior. That's why friends and family can often play a key role in helping those with eating disorders get the help they need.

Oftentimes, your family member or friend might not realize or accept that they have an eating disorder. The best chance for treating this problem is by speaking with a mental healthcare professional.

Here are some ways you can guide your friend or family member toward seeking help without directly speaking to them about it.

  • Continue to let them know they're welcome. This person may be in a place where they're self-isolating. It may be hard to encourage them to engage in the outside world. But keep trying. Even if they say no, being invited will let them know you still value them as a person. 
  • Shower them with love. Telling them how much you love them and appreciate them can build their self-esteem and help them through this challenging time in their life.
  • Listen to them. This may be difficult, but simply giving them your time and listening to them without judgment can mean the world to them. It can be tough to hear them speak about themselves and what they eat but not giving advice or passing judgment is what's important.

Offering support is essential, and you can do this indirectly by:

  • Understanding that their eating disorder is not your fault.
  • Understanding how hard this affliction is for them.
  • Educating yourself about eating disorders from reputable sources.
  • Avoiding talk about body image, weight loss, diets, or other related topics.
  • Modeling healthy behaviors around food, eating, and body image.
  • Reminding yourself that recovery is always possible and that things can change for your friend or loved one.
  • Taking stock of any behaviors you exhibit that directly accommodate or enable your friend or loved one's eating disorder.

If you're ready and feel the time is right to speak with your friend or loved one about their eating disorder, here are some tips that may help:

  • Think of what you'll say beforehand. Writing down what you want to say or rehearsing what you'll say helps. That way, you'll be less anxious as you speak to your friend or loved one, and your thoughts will be more clear.
  • Create the time and space. Make sure there's a private, safe place to talk. These issues are very sensitive and you don’t want any outside distractions to interrupt your conversation.
  • Share your experience with honesty. Honestly let them know how concerned you are for their safety. Holding back will not help. 
  • Stick to using “I” statements. Sticking to your own experience by structuring all your statements with "I" is very helpful. Otherwise, you risk sounding accusatory and making your friend or loved one feel attacked or shamed. 
  • Remember the facts. Discussing someone’s eating disorder with them can stir up several conflicting emotions. Always bring things back to the facts of the situation, like things you've observed and why those things alarm or upset you, so that you can keep your conversation on a more productive track. 
  • Love them but hold your ground. Being loving doesn’t always mean being sweet. Don't let your friend manipulate you. Avoid making extreme rules, promises, or expectations that are not helpful. 
  • Let them know they're not judged. Eating disorders carry an incredible amount of stigma and shame with them. Remind your loved one there's no shame in admitting that they struggle with an eating disorder. 
  • Don’t give them simple remedies. Simply telling your friend or loved one to start eating and stop having an eating disorder isn't helpful. Most likely, they'll walk away from the conversation feeling unseen, unheard, and defensive.
  • Know that you could face a very negative reaction. From anger to disbelief to denial, there can be a whole range of negative responses to raising your concerns over another person’s eating disorder. Be prepared for this person to react unkindly to you. 
  • Research treatment options ahead of your conversation. Seeking professional help increases the likelihood of recovery from an eating disorder. Sharing your research with your friend or loved one might help them understand the problem and find the right treatment option.