How to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Posted on July 18, 2022

woman with eating disorder in support group

Eating disorders are serious mental disorders that can greatly impact daily functioning and reduce the quality of life. Anyone can be affected by an eating disorder, regardless of sex, gender, age, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. They’re more common than you might think — one 2020 report published by researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health found that about 28.8 million Americans (around 9 percent) will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime.

With intervention and treatment, many individuals make full recoveries and go on to live fulfilling lives. However, if left untreated, eating disorders can be deadly: over 10,000 people die each year as a result of an eating disorder. These numbers are certainly alarming, but you should take comfort knowing that with treatment and support, many suffering from eating disorders recover.

While it’s important that a struggling loved one receives the medical and psychological care they need to get well, strong support from family and friends plays a crucial role in the recovery process. Whether this support comes in the form of helping develop healthy habits, identifying treatment options, or simply being there to listen, knowing they have someone to lean on can make all the difference to somebody recovering from an eating disorder.

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are characterized by disturbances in behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes related to food, weight, and physical appearance. What may start as a mild preoccupation may progress to a serious fixation with severe long-term health effects. Eating disorders manifest in different ways for different people, and those affected may have a wide range of symptoms. Common eating disorders include:

  • Binge eating disorder
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Purging disorder
  • Pica
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder

Eating disorders are complex in nature and may be caused by several factors, including genetics, biology, emotional well-being, and psychological health. Regardless of the cause, all eating disorders can have serious physical, emotional, and psychological consequences without proper treatment and support. Treatment for eating disorders is often multifaceted and, depending on the individual, may include medical treatment, psychiatric care, counseling, nutritional guidance, and lifestyle changes. Depending on the severity, treatment may occur on an inpatient, outpatient, or intensive outpatient basis.

Battling an eating disorder can uproot the normalcy of everyday life for both individuals who are struggling and their loved ones. For someone with an eating disorder, reaching out for help may feel intimidating, embarrassing, or burdensome. For family and friends, not knowing how to offer support can lead to increased distress about a loved one’s health and feeling powerless in their recovery.

While eating disorders may feel like a constant uphill battle for both those struggling and their families, recovery is possible. With treatment, struggling individuals and their families can regain independence from eating disorders and continue living happy, healthy lives.

Recognizing an Eating Disorder

One of the most important steps you can take in helping someone you suspect might have an eating disorder is recognizing when help is needed and encouraging them to seek treatment. According to the Mayo Clinic and other experts, the following eating patterns and behaviors may indicate someone is struggling with an eating disorder (or developing a problematic relationship with food or appearance that could lead to an eating disorder):

  • Making excuses for not eating or skipping meals
  • Adopting an overly restrictive diet or an obsessive focus on eating healthy
  • Withdrawing from normal social activities, especially when food is involved
  • Persistent worry, complaining, and fixation on appearance and weight
  • Use of dietary supplements, laxatives, or vomiting for weight loss
  • Excessive exercise
  • Leaving during or directly after meals to use the toilet
  • Eating much more food at once than is considered normal
  • The appearance of rapid weight gain or weight loss
  • Changes in mood (increased irritability, anxiety, or depression)
  • Eating in secret

As someone in a supportive role, it’s also important to understand the risks of what could happen if an eating disorder is left untreated. Individuals who don’t receive the care and support they need may be at risk for the following:

  • Damage to the cardiovascular and digestive systems
  • Low blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Menstrual cycle irregularity
  • Organ failure and brain damage

woman in therapy for an eating disorderSomeone with an eating disorder may feel a strong sense of secrecy or shame, making it difficult to ask for help. They may not even realize that their behavior is unhealthy. This makes it all the more important for loved ones to reach out, express concern, and encourage discussion about the situation.

The initial conversation encouraging someone to get help can be a difficult one to have. Your loved one might not be ready to admit that they have a problem when confronted or may respond with indifference to their health. Regardless of whether they’re ready to discuss problematic behaviors with food, you can open up the door for meaningful conversation by showing your concern and willingness to listen. Oftentimes, just letting someone know that you’re ready to listen non-judgmentally plants a seed that may, over time, lead an individual to seek the help they need.

Learn more about warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders, body image, and treatment options, and read inspirational stories of recovery on the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website. NEDA provides a wealth of resources, including a screening tool appropriate for those aged 13 and over to help determine if it’s time to seek professional help for your loved one.

How to Show Support: The Do’s

Regardless of their age, background, or the severity of their illness, encouraging someone to get professional treatment can be a delicate task. Luckily, there are steps you can take to help ensure the conversation goes smoothly and expresses that you’re coming from a place of genuine concern. Whether you’re initiating a conversation for the first time or checking in on their recovery progress, keep the following points in mind when supporting someone with an eating disorder.

  • Understand that admitting there is a problem and seeking professional help may be difficult, frightening, and/or confusing for the individual in need of treatment. While it may seem like a simple process from the outside, the first steps to seeking help for an eating disorder are often stressful. Your patience and empathy will go a long way in encouraging someone to seek treatment.
  • Educate yourself. The causes of eating disorders are complex, and every individual is different. Learning more about the different factors that cause eating disorders and how they may manifest can help you better understand what your loved one is going through and how to better support them.
  • Approach the issue proactively, but without being confrontational. Watching a loved one suffer a decreased quality of life because of their relationship with food or their appearance can be a frustrating experience. While it’s completely normal to have strong feelings about the well-being of someone you care about, it’s important to approach the topic of treatment gently while still being firm in your belief that they need professional help. Avoid being overly emotional or combative, as this may push your loved one further away.
  • Offer to help with scheduling appointments and finding resources. When someone is still tethered to the demands of their eating disorder, simple tasks like making a call or browsing the web can become challenging and overwhelming. The small act of making a phone call to a healthcare provider or offering to help research therapists can be an immense relief.
  • Ensure they get a medical checkup. Eating disorders can lead to serious issues with physical and psychological health. Communicate these risks with your loved one and encourage them to see a doctor in case there are any medical issues that need to be addressed immediately. Keep in mind that a comprehensive physical exam from a reputable physician is better than a telehealth visit or bloodwork alone.
  • Work with the part of your loved one that wants to recover. When someone is apprehensive about getting help for an eating disorder for any reason, there may be parts of them that want to make excuses about getting help, minimize their behavior, or drag their feet in taking proactive steps to being healthy. Help your loved one identify the side effects of their eating disorder that they do want to change. Maybe they’re sick of feeling depressed or anxious, or ready to do something about constantly feeling tired. Helping them identify reasons ‌they want to get healthy can help jumpstart their interest in recovery.
  • Help them remember why they want to get healthy. When meeting the rigorous demands of an eating disorder is your top priority, it can be difficult to remember what life was like when you were healthy. Inspire your loved one to embrace recovery by reminding them of the activities they used to enjoy (and that are still waiting for them once they’re healthy again). Ask them about what their goals were and talk about how to make those goals a reality once they’ve regained freedom from their eating disorder. Painting a picture of a bright post-recovery world that’s full of possibility can be a great motivator for seeking help and getting back on track.

How to Show Support: The Don’ts

  • Don’t make comments on your loved one’s appearance at any point during or after their recovery. It can be very alarming to see that someone’s physical appearance has changed dramatically because of an eating disorder. As a result, you may be tempted to express concern about perceived weight loss or weight gain. Despite good intentions, this can cause someone to focus even more intensely on physical appearance and become even more preoccupied with their weight.
    • Instead of saying “I’m worried because you look like you’ve (gained or lost) weight,” try: “I care about you, and I’m concerned about your health. Can we talk about how you’ve been?”
    • Likewise, when your loved one is doing well in recovery, it’s still important to refrain from making appearance-based statements. Instead of saying “You look like you’re getting back to your normal self!” try saying, “You look like you’re glowing. How do you feel?”
  • Don’t make comments on your own weight/appearance around your loved one. Making negative comments about your own appearance (or the appearances of others) reinforces the incorrect view that how we look is a good indicator of our worth.
  • Don’t threaten forced care to motivate someone to seek treatment. It’s frustrating when someone who needs help refuses to get it. While there may come a time when a loved one needs urgent medical care because of their eating disorder, threatening them with involuntary hospitalization for medical/psychiatric care can add to the stress they already feel about getting treatment. Let your loved one know that you’re ready to go on this journey with them, to listen without judgment, and to help them make a change for the better.
  • Don’t blame your loved one or make them feel guilty for causing others stress or anxiety. There is already a tremendous amount of guilt wrapped up in an eating disorder. Telling a loved one that their behavior is causing additional stress for other family and friends may only exacerbate their guilt and make them feel as though they don’t deserve to be healthy. It can also cause them to withdraw and avoid treatment in the future.
  • Don’t get discouraged by slow progress. Often, recovery from a serious mental disorder is not a linear process. It may have peaks and valleys, as well as plateaus where there doesn’t seem to be much progress at all. If your loved one isn’t progressing as quickly as you wished they were, remember that relearning healthy behavior takes time. Make progress even more meaningful by celebrating even the small victories and help your loved one get back on track and connected to resources when they fall short of recovery goals.
  • Don’t give up. It’s important to remember that you can’t expect yourself to be your loved one’s only support and heal them from their eating disorder all on your own. It can take a team of specialized medical professionals, therapists, nutritionists, and the support of family and friends to help a loved one get their life back after an eating disorder. Be kind to yourself, and don’t feel pressured to be your loved one’s only support system. Instead, focus on things you can do to help – connecting them to resources, motivating them to stay on track, and listening without judgment.

Eating disorders make life difficult for those afflicted, as well as their family and friends. Recovery is possible even in severe cases, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t happen overnight. Healing from an eating disorder requires patience and determination from your loved one and their support team. One of the most important things you can do to support someone in recovery is connecting them with the resources they need to heal. Eating disorders require professional help and quality of care matters.

Multiple studies have found family support plays a key role in recovery from eating disorders. A 2014 study published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment suggested widening the support network to also include “friends, colleagues, neighbors, people from religious groups,” and others important to the person struggling with an eating disorder can also be instrumental in helping the person enjoy a successful, long-term recovery.

Eating Disorder Treatment at Rising Phoenix

Rising Phoenix is a licensed mental health and substance abuse treatment center with both outpatient and intensive outpatient programs, depending on your loved one’s treatment needs. We treat people holistically by providing care that facilitates healing of the whole person, in mind, body, and spirit. With integrative models of care that include individual and group therapy, psychiatric and medical evaluations, family and couple’s counseling, case management, and alumni services, we’re well equipped to treat eating disorders and help your loved one resume a happy, fulfilling life.

We know the importance of supportive family and friends in the recovery process, so we prioritize providing coping strategies and communication tools to those actively supporting loved ones in treatment.

If you’re worried that you or a loved one is suffering a decreased quality of life because of an eating disorder, we have an admissions advisor standing by 24/7, ready to work with you and answer any questions you may have. We’re here for you and ready to provide the assistance you need to support your loved one on their recovery journey.

Ready to get started?

Toll-Free Call

100% Confidential