When things get hard, you need support to make it through. This is true for all of life’s challenges, but especially so for eating disorders, which thrive in secrecy and hijack a person’s ability to make healthy and safe choices for themselves. With eating disorders, that support comes in the form of expert clinicians, family, friends, and mentors—but another crucial component are eating disorder support groups. Read on to learn the benefits of eating disorder support groups, how to choose one, and our recommendations for seven online eating disorder support groups you can join today.
The benefits of eating disorder support groups
As the name suggests, an eating disorder support group is a group of people who meet to support one another through eating disorder recovery, and they’re generally a supplement to—and not a substitute for—eating disorder treatment. While there are many different types and formats for eating disorder support groups, the goal of each is the same: to provide community and peer support to people doing the hard work of beating an eating disorder.
Research shows that eating disorder support groups work. A study of adults in eating disorder treatment showed that support groups helped to reduce stigma and isolation while improving motivation and engagement, while another found that support groups helped reduce post-meal distress in young people with anorexia. Research has also found that support groups can be helpful for those supporting a loved one through recovery, with groups improving parents’ relationship with their child and providing an opportunity to connect with others who understand their experience. Support groups have also been shown to reduce and prevent disordered eating in middle school students.
When you look at the benefits eating disorder support groups provide, it makes sense that they have such a measurable positive impact. Support groups allow people to feel less alone by connecting with others who truly get it—and for a disease so rooted in shame, hearing people share stories that mirror your own can be truly revelatory. These groups also offer an opportunity to learn skills and hear about how they worked for real people in real life, which can be more impactful than learning skills and strategies in an abstract way in a therapy session. Support groups provide camaraderie and connection (crucial in a disease that can cause extreme social isolation), they let patients and families see real-life proof that recovery is possible, and they provide a safe space to talk through struggles.
Equip’s Director of Lived Experience, JD Ouellette, experienced the benefits of eating disorder support groups firsthand when she was helping her daughter recover from anorexia. “For both me and my daughter, I think a very important component of the groups was to normalize the experiences we were having,” she says. “Eating disorders are bizarre, and what you have to do to successfully treat them can be unfathomable. It matters to hear that others are sharing your experience. And because most groups contain folks in different places, those further along the road to recovery provide hope, showing that recovery is possible.”
Eating disorder support groups can also provide something very unexpected but very needed during eating disorder treatment: humor. “One often overlooked component of groups is there’s almost always laughter, and laughter is so healing,” Ouellette says. “Painful situations are also often absurd, and being able to have some levity around them can be vital.”
How to choose an eating disorder support group
While all eating disorder support groups share certain qualities and provide certain benefits, there are vast differences from group to group, and choosing the right one is important. Here are some important factors to consider when deciding among different eating disorder support groups:
- Is it moderated? We highly recommend attending a group that is moderated by a trained facilitator who can ensure that the group remains a constructive, supportive space. “The number one factor is having facilitators who are up-to-date in their eating disorder knowledge and aware of evidence-based practices,” says Ouellette. “This is particularly important with patient groups, where you have to be very careful that groups don’t become a way to connect in a competitive way and share eating disorder behavior ‘tips.’”
- Does it fit your schedule? We believe that treatment should fit into people’s lives, not the other way around. This allows you to remain connected to the things that matter most, building up a full and vibrant life outside the eating disorder. For this reason, it’s important to find groups offered at times that don’t disrupt the important commitments in your life. You’ll also want to consider how frequently a group meets: if you want a lot of extra support, you might choose a group that meets twice a week rather than one that meets twice a month.
- Does it fit your situation? General eating disorder support groups can be tremendously helpful, but sometimes it can be more beneficial to connect with people in a situation more similar to yours. That might mean joining a group for a specific diagnosis (like an ARFID-specific group, for instance), a certain population (BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, etc.), or a certain age range. There are also specialized groups for loved ones supporting someone through an eating disorder, like support groups for single parents.
- Is participation required? Some support groups require that members participate, while others let you speak or not speak depending on how you feel. Consider what format you’d be most comfortable with and what would be most helpful for you.
- Does it fulfill your needs? Each eating disorder support group has its own goals and structure: some might be around building skills, others might be around sharing stories, others might be an open check-in discussion. “You want to see if the group’s purpose aligns with what you’re looking for. Is it just support? Do you want skills-building? For adults, it might be a harm-reduction focus,” says Ouellette. “I would recommend visiting a few groups to get an idea of what’s going to suit you best, vibe-wise.”
- How did you feel after? If you give a support group (or several) a trial run, take some time to notice how you feel afterward. The emotions and thoughts that a support group brings up in you are a good indicator of what kind of impact it might have on your life and recovery journey.
7 eating disorder support groups you can join today
There are a lot of eating disorder support groups to choose among. To help you make your choice, we’ve pulled together a list of seven places where you can find high-quality support groups that are open to the public (many support groups are only offered to patients in a specific treatment program):
- National Alliance for Eating Disorders: The Alliance offers various free, weekly disorder support groups, both online and in-person, which are led by licensed clinicians (psychologists, therapists, dietitians, etc) who are experienced in the field of eating disorders. All facilitators attend robust training and monthly supervision with The Alliance’s clinical director. They offer groups for those in recovery, groups for those supporting people in recovery, and an LGBTQIA+ group.
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD): As the largest peer support resource for eating disorders in the country, ANAD offers free, virtual support groups for both people in recovery and those supporting someone in recovery. Each group is 75 minutes.
- The Eating Disorder Foundation (EDF): EDF offers a variety of highly specialized support groups every day of the week, allowing you to find a group of people in situations very similar to your own (for example, groups for those over 30, groups for men, art journaling groups, adolescent groups, etc.). Each group is facilitated by a licensed professional on the EDF team.
- F.E.A.S.T.: While F.E.A.S.T. doesn’t offer a live support group, they do have an online support forum for parents and family members supporting a loved one through eating disorder recovery. Each forum is moderated by experienced parent-caregivers who are trained to guide you on how to best use the forum and find resources to support your loved one.
- FEDUP Collective: FEDUP offers eating disorder support groups for underrepresented populations, including those who are gender-diverse, queer, trans, BIPOC, intersex, and fat, among others. It also offers support groups for loved ones of people in these populations. They have private online forums as well as both virtual and in-person support groups, all of which are moderated.
- Multi-service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA): MEDA offers a variety of online eating disorders for eating disorder patients and their loved ones. Groups focus on a variety of different topics, from trauma to body image to more general groups on eating disorder recovery.
- Equip: We offer a variety of different, population-specific support groups for our patients and their families, including groups for athletes, boys and men, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ folk, Spanish-speaking patients, and more, as well as groups on specific topics, like body image. For those not enrolled in Equip treatment, we recommend you sign up for our newsletter to learn more about free support group opportunities.
Eating disorder support groups can be a crucial part of treatment—just one session might give you the glimmer of hope you need to push through a tough day, or a new skill that helps you finally overcome a persistent problem, or a kind word that lets you feel seen. Whether you have an eating disorder yourself or are helping someone who does, you are not alone. And having people who remind you of that can be key to the recovery journey.
- Waller, A et al (2020). The experience of adults recovering from an eating disorder in professionally-led support groups. Qualitative Research Journal. ahead-of-print. 10.1108/QRJ-07-2020-0088.
- Monaghan, Margaret, and Louise Doyle. “'It stopped you thinking about food' - The experiences of mealtimes and attending a post-meal support group for young people with anorexia nervosa.” International journal of mental health nursing vol. 32,1 (2023): 128-138. doi:10.1111/inm.13068
- Grennan, L., et al. “I’m not alone”: a qualitative report of experiences among parents of children with eating disorders attending virtual parent-led peer support groups. J Eat Disord 10, 195 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-022-00719-2
- McVey, Gail L et al. “School-based peer support groups: a new approach to the prevention of disordered eating.” Eating disorders vol. 11,3 (2003): 169-85. doi:10.1080/10640260390218297