Tactical Steps to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder
Randy Smith

It can be difficult to see someone you love struggle with their mental and physical health. It’s even harder when they don’t seem to initially want your help. Because eating disorders can be egosyntonic, meaning the person struggling may not actually want to get better, providing support can be complicated. But you can still play a vital role in getting your loved one the care they need to recover from an eating disorder.

Read on to learn the warning signs of an eating disorder and the steps that you should take to help them get help and become a healthier and happier version of themselves.

What to look for when you suspect that someone in your life has an eating disorder

Eating disorders are common mental health disorders, affecting more than 20 million Americans. So statistically, it’s likely that there’s someone in your life who may be struggling with one.

If your friend skips a meal, or your significant other says, “I’m not hungry,” you probably don’t think much of it. But if things like that keep occurring, you might start to get worried. By understanding the behavioral patterns that may lead to or indicate an eating disorder, you’ll be better equipped to support your loved one and get them help if they need it.

Here are some eating disorder symptoms to be aware of:

  • Skipping meals
  • Weighing food or counting calories
  • Rigid exercise routines
  • Hiding food
  • Cutting out entire food groups
  • Only eating “clean” foods
  • Rapid weight gain or loss
  • Fatigue
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Always being cold
  • Being highly critical of their body

Even though there are some physical indicators of an eating disorder, it’s important to remember that eating disorders aren’t always reflected in a person’s physical appearance. Even someone who appears to look “healthy” or hasn’t had notable weight loss may be struggling with eating disorder symptoms. With eating disorders, there’s no such thing as “not sick enough” to get treatment.

Steps for helping someone in your life with an eating disorder

Recognizing the potential signs of an eating disorder in someone close to you is concerning, but it’s an important first step. So what comes next?

It’s not easy for someone with an eating disorder to be open about their struggles. They may feel shame or embarrassment; they may even feel protective of their eating disorder and become defensive, lash out, or close themselves off. It’s important to recognize that eating disorders and malnourishment can change how a person’s brain works, which may cause them to act outside of their ordinary values. Oftentimes, you’re speaking to their eating disorder and not them; but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to help.

Here are actionable steps that you can take to help someone you love with an eating disorder:

  • Make them feel included: Not only is social withdrawal or isolation common in people with eating disorders, so are body image struggles and self-criticism. To combat all of these feelings, include your loved one in conversations and social plans (even if they tend to say no) to support their self-esteem and help them feel less alone.
  • Create a judgment-free zone: Any sort of mental health disorder can make people feel ashamed or guilty about their symptoms, often because they feel like the people in their life wouldn’t approve. Letting your loved one know that they can talk to you without fear of judgment can go a long way. By creating a safe space for them, you can help them feel supported and more likely to seek out professional help.
  • Relay your observations: It’s important that you share your concerns about their behaviors without being accusatory. Using “I” statements can be helpful, as can leading with curiosity. Ask questions rather than making judgements or stating things as facts.
  • Share your research: Educating yourself on the type of eating disorder that they may be struggling with, as well as potential treatment options, can prove to the person that you have their best interests at heart. By putting in the effort to learn about their struggles and how they can work toward recovery, you’re also showing that you believe in their ability to recover.

Equip can help someone in your life work toward eating disorder recovery

If you see the initial signs of an eating disorder in someone close to you, it’s normal to assume that you should wait until it becomes “more serious” before you step in. But eating disorders are serious—even deadly—and the earlier a person gets help, the more likely they are to achieve full recovery. That said, it’s never too late for someone to get treatment and heal. Regardless of how long your loved one has been struggling or how severe their symptoms seem, it’s important that they get help. And by taking the steps above, you can play a pivotal role in encouraging them to do that.

Don’t forget that you need support throughout this journey too. At Equip, loved ones are invited into treatment and are matched with a family mentor, someone who has lived experience helping a loved one into recovery. You can also join support groups and connect with others who share your experience. You’re not alone in this process; our team of expert clinicians and people who’ve been there are here to help.

Get in touch with our team today for more information or to schedule a free consultation.

About Angela Celio Doyle, PhD

Dr. Doyle has been a clinician and researcher in the eating disorder field for over 20 years. Passionate about early intervention and access to evidence-based care, she trains treatment providers internationally in providing family-based treatment for eating disorders and has a research background in internet-based eating disorder prevention programs. Dr. Doyle earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the SDSU-UCSD Joint Doctoral Program and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago. She holds an adjunct faculty position at the University of Washington's Department of Psychology and is Vice President of Behavioral Health Care at Equip.


References

1. Graber, Eric. “Eating Disorders Are on the Rise.” American Society for Nutrition, https://nutrition.org/eating-disorders-are-on-the-rise/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2023.

Randy Smith
Content Writer
Clinically reviewed by:
Angela Celio Doyle, PhD, FAED
Vice President, Behavioral Health Care, Equip
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