How to help a friend with an eating disorder

Eating disorders come in many different shapes and sizes. The prevalence of these disorders in society is at an all-time high, so chances are you know someone who’s struggling with one. There are some things, however, you can do to help a friend or family member who may be struggling with an eating disorder. These are relatively simple things, but they can mean the most. 

Take the time to really learn about this person’s struggle. Eating disorders can take different forms. A person could over-exercise and restrict food intake, or purge through use of laxatives or self-induced vomiting. They could be eating large amounts of food without compensating or it could be a mix of any of these.

Learn about what type of eating disorder that person has so you can lend a hand. Read books. Read online articles. Ask the person how they are struggling. The resources to learn about these deadly mental illnesses are out there and taking the time to learn can help save lives.

Graphic by Katie Gibson.
Words of the disorders. Graphic by Katie Gibson.

Take time to listen to this person. Eating disorders are essentially deadly coping mechanisms. They’re a way to gain control of the chaos around a person, so if they have someone to listen, it might help to reduce the amount of destruction they take out on themselves. Listen to them without distractions; really hear them out. 

Be supportive and loving to this person. Offer to eat meals with them if they feel comfortable with that. Be that person they text in the middle of the night while breaking down. Show them all the love that you can while still taking care of yourself. This person most likely doesn’t love him or herself, so having a supportive friend to show them love is helpful.

It’s hard to deal with someone who’s struggling with an eating disorder. These are illnesses that take a physical and mental toll. They’re complex diseases.

Don’t tell these individuals what they should or shouldn’t do. These individuals know that what they’re doing isn’t positive. Telling someone to “just eat” isn’t going to accomplish anything. Eating disorders evolve around the concept of control, so trying to control how or when they eat  will likely cause resistance.

Don’t gossip about how this person is struggling or how they’re coping with their struggles. Eating disorders are called silent diseases because those who struggle don’t tell many people. If someone who’s struggling opens up to you, you should value that confidence. Keep information between this individual and you. Don’t gossip. If you see that this individual has taken a turn for the worse or become suicidal, you should tell someone–but let the individual know first that you’re going to share their secret.

Don’t encourage the person to engage in these dangerous behaviors. You don’t want to feed the demon inside. You want to promote being healthy and eating mindfully. Lead by example and allow them to see that it’s possible to eat normally.

Eating disorders are complex diseases. In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, take some time to educate yourself. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who may be struggling. You may never know the impact that you could have. To learn more about eating disorders, you can check out this site where you can read articles, learn about how eating disorders form, look at forums of those struggling and find treatment if you yourself are struggling. You can also check out this video with some more tips about how to help someone with an eating disorder.