Helping a loved one with an eating disorder

Feb 23, 2021


Worldwide, at least 9% of the population suffers from an eating disorder. What many people don’t realize is that eating disorders are one of the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid addiction. From February 22-28, Eating Disorder Awareness Week invites us to learn, listen and reach out to struggling loved ones.

When someone is struggling with an eating disorder, the role of their loved ones is crucial. For many people, an honest and vulnerable conversation with a trusted friend or family member is the first step to seeking professional help.

Preparing for the conversation

Conversations about eating disorders can be emotional and overwhelming. Many people fear saying the wrong thing—and then don’t say anything at all. But there are ways to approach your loved one with honesty and empathy. Consider these tips for helping a loved one with an eating disorder:

  • Learn as much as you can about eating disorders. Read articles, books, blogs or brochures about eating disorders. Learn the facts and myths surrounding eating disorders, weight stigma, nutrition and exercise. Knowing these myths and facts can help you stay calm if your loved one shares any ideas they have that are clearly fueled by disordered eating patterns or thoughts.
  • Rehearse what you want to say. You may find that rehearsing what you want to say can alleviate some of your anxiety about having a conversation. You may also consider writing down the main points you want to make.
  • Use “I” statements. Saying things like, “You never eat!” can feel accusatory and may cause your loved one to shut down or feel defensive. Instead, frame your statements to focus on what you’ve observed. For example, you may say, “I’ve noticed you’re going to the gym multiple times a day.” If you can, try to bring up behaviors not related to the person’s eating habits or weight. Non-food-related behaviors may be easier for your loved one to recognize and accept.
  • Focus on the facts while expressing concern. It can help to approach the conversation with specific examples of concerning behaviors. You may say, “I’ve noticed you run to the bathroom after a meal,” or “I’ve noticed you avoid eating lunch.” Follow up these statements with an expression of concern—you’re not bringing up these observations as an attack or criticism. You may say, “I’m bringing this up because I care about you, and I’m worried that you’re struggling.”
  • Avoid simplistic solutions. For someone who has never struggled with an eating disorder, it may seem simple to “just eat” or “just stop.” But these responses make the person who is suffering feel unheard and misunderstood. Remind your loved one that it’s okay to admit that they’re struggling and recovery is possible.
  • Be prepared for a negative reaction. Even when you use all the “I” statements and communicate as clearly and calmly as possible, your loved one may still respond negatively. They may react with hostility, or they may brush off the conversation altogether. Don’t allow the conversation to become an argument. Your purpose is to express concern—not debate about their behaviors or talk them into a conversation they’re not ready to have yet. Be firm and reiterate your care for them, then leave the conversation open.
  • Encourage them to seek professional help. Many people who suffer from an eating disorder will need the assistance of a professional to get better. You can offer to help your loved one find a physician or therapist. You may even attend the first appointment with them, if they want you to. Getting timely treatment can make a significant difference in how quickly a person gets well. Encourage your loved to find professional guidance for eating disorder recovery.

If you need support, resources or eating disorder treatment options for yourself or a loved one, contact the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline. If a loved one shows any signs of a physical or psychiatric emergency, such as seizures, heart arrhythmia or suicide ideation, call 911.