How To Help A Loved One With An Eating Disorder
How To Help A Loved One With An Eating Disorder

How To Help A Loved One With An Eating Disorder

If you know someone with an eating disorder, you'll understand just how complex and deep-rooted they can be. However, experts agree early intervention greatly increases the likelihood of recovery, and knowing how to support a loved one can make all the difference when it comes to conquering this mental illness. In light of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we asked three experts to share their insights…
By Tor West

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Look Out For Behavioural Changes

“You are more likely to spot behavioural changes rather than physical signs of an eating disorder, especially in the early days. For example, someone who was once bubbly and outgoing may have become more subdued, or you may notice your friend has started cancelling social arrangements at the last minute. You may also notice increasing rigidity around food and mealtimes, or that someone has become overly preoccupied with how they look and are engaging in unhealthy behaviours such as weighing themselves frequently or focusing on one body part. An obsession with exercise and movement is also very common.” – Carolina Mountford, mental health speaker & writer

Find The Right Moment

“Starting a conversation surrounding someone’s eating habits can be a challenge, and it’s important to do this at the right time, as it may potentially cause more harm than good – even if the good intentions to offer a helping hand are there. Start by asking your friend how they are feeling and the symptoms they are experiencing, rather than just making assumptions. Being as compassionate, supportive and non-judgemental as possible will help them open up about their concerns and can be the first real step in them getting the help they need. Once this conversation has been had, encourage them to seek support as soon as possible, as early intervention greatly increases the likelihood of recovery.” – Rhiannon Lambert, nutritionist & master practitioner in eating disorders

Explain Why You’re Concerned

“Avoid lecturing or criticising, as this will only make your friend defensive. Your goal at this point isn’t to offer solutions but to express your concern about their health, how much you love them, and your desire to help. However, be prepared for denial and resistance. Remember this conversation likely feels very threatening to someone with an eating disorder, so remain calm, focused and respectful. Have patience and keep showing them you are there whenever they need you.” – Elle Mace, master practitioner in body dysmorphia & eating disorders

Just Listen

“You can’t go wrong with asking a loved one how they are doing and what else is going on for them. Listen and be supportive – let them know you are there for them. Even if you don’t know what to say, or are afraid of saying the wrong thing, just listening and acknowledging how hard it must be for them is powerful. Offer to do some research for them and make some phone calls – they may be feeling frightened, vulnerable, angry or exhausted, or all of these emotions. Let them know you understand how hard and scary it is to talk, but that they can trust you. Tell them recovery is very possible regardless of how impossible it may feel to them right now.” – Carolina

Tell them RECOVERY IS VERY POSSIBLE regardless of how impossible it may feel right now.

Drop The Talk Around Food

“An eating disorder is a mental illness and there’s so much more to than food. Don’t suggest they ‘just eat’ and don’t talk about diets when you’re with them, nor what you’ve eaten, how much exercise you’ve done recently or are planning on doing. Also get out of the habit of talking about ‘treating’ yourself to a food item or referring to food as good or bad. Keep the conversation to something else, and try to think of things to do socially that don’t revolve around food, which can be a natural source of anxiety for anyone with an eating disorder.” – Carolina

Accept There Will Be Ups and Downs

“It’s likely that someone with an eating disorder will also be struggling with anxiety, depression and mood swings, meaning they’ll have days when they feel amazing and other days when they feel very low. Be there for them, even if it’s just offering an ear, and don’t take their actions or reactions personally – remember they’re struggling to process the emotions and stress themselves.” – Elle

Be Loyal

“Increased isolation, irritability, low mood and anxiety are all very common in people with eating disorders. You may notice a loved one is acting out of character but it’s vital to remember this is not the real them – it’s the complex mental health disorder they are struggling with. Eating disorders make us say and do things we wouldn’t normally do, and to be on the receiving end of that can be hard. If your friendship is to survive, it’s important to remember the person you love is still there but buried under layers of defensive mechanisms they’ve put up to alienate the very people they want to draw close to. Try as much as you can to separate the two.” – Carolina 

Educate Yourself

“Podcasts are a great way to learn more about eating disorders. My podcast, More To Life, is a great self-developmental podcast that provides tips from a variety of professionals on how to break old habits and behaviours. The Eating Disorder Therapist podcast and Rachel Evans’ Just Eat Normally podcast are also worth a listen. When it comes to book, I recommend The Eating Disorder Sourcebook by Carolyn Costin, and Surviving An Eating Disorder, Strategies For Family and Friends by Michele Siegel.” – Elle


Make Generalisations

“It’s a myth that you have to be underweight to have an eating disorder. This is a huge misconception as anorexia only accounts for 8% of all eating disorders. Of the three main recognised eating disorders, binge eating is the most common. At the same time, it’s a myth that only teenage girls and young women are affected – eating disorders don’t only affect white, middle class teenage girls.” – Carolina

Exclude Them

“It can be tricky to navigate social situations when a friend is struggling with their eating habits, but keep inviting them even if they continue to decline, as this will build their self-esteem. Don’t overwhelm them or push them too far outside of their comfort zone with what or where you are eating, though. During a meal, focus the attention on other topics of conversation – perhaps it’s plans you have that week or a good book you are reading – and make mealtimes fun and enjoyable. Don’t pressure them to eat anything and keep asking them how they are feeling.” – Elle

Expect Miracles Overnight

“Treatment can take time – months and even years. The specifics of treatment will vary, taking into consideration the eating disorder and its severity, but is usually a combination of psychotherapy, an eating disorder specialist, a GP, nutritionist, education and sometimes medication. Getting other friends and family on board is essential to ensure the messages and understanding at home and in their personal lives are aligned.” – Elle  

Don’t fall into THE TRAP OF THINKING THAT WHEN THEIR WEIGHT IS RESTORED, THEY ARE RECOVERED. Often, this is when the real battle begins.

Think Recovery Is A Linear Process

“Don’t be surprised if a friend goes through periods when things seem better before taking a few steps back. This is normal. At the same time, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that when their weight is restored, they are recovered. Often, this is when the real battle begins. When they reach this stage, it means their body is nourished to an extent where they are ready to do the hard emotional work. Being there for them at this stage is important – it can be both confusing and frightening for someone with an eating disorder.” – Carolina 

Suffer In Silence

“It’s vital that you, the family and friends of someone going through an eating disorder, get help and support for yourselves. It’s important that you maintain your physical and emotional health so you can help your loved one when they need you. Use the airplane analogy – put your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else with theirs. You’ll be no use to anyone if you are exhausted, drained, without support and consumed with worry. Remain constant, show love and support, and do what you can to let your loved one know you’ll fight this together as a team.” – Carolina

For more information visit, & For further support, also visit BEAT, Mind & the NHS.

DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.

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