How to Help a Loved One with an Eating Disorder



People commonly misperceive that individuals with eating disorders are “vain” or that eating disorders are all about wanting to look thin like models in the magazines. However, the reality is that eating disorders are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. — Jennifer Rollin MSW, LCSW-C

Recognizing the Signs

If you think that a friend or family member may have an eating disorder, be sure to check for some of the most common warning signs before confronting them. Typical warning signs include the following:

  • skipping meals
  • eating unusually small portions
  • refusing to eat in front of other people
  • insists that they are not hungry or that they’ve already eaten
  • spits out food before swallowing it
  • avoids foods that are high in fat, especially if they used to love a particular food
  • brags about losing weight drastically
  • analyzes food labels intensely before eating anything
  • forcing themselves to vomit after meals
  • eats huge quantities of food but still remains thin (could mean that they’re binge eating and inducing vomiting)
  • takes large amounts of laxatives or diet pills
  • wears baggy clothes
  • insists that they are overweight when they are extremely underweight
  • hates all of or certain parts of their body
  • believes that they can never be thin enough
  • exercises an unreasonable amount
  • has an obsession with food, eating, and their weight
  • denies that they have a problem
  • controls where they eat, especially if with a group of people
  • has a lack of impulse control
  • engages in self-injury or dangerous behaviors
  • abuses alcohol, sex, prescription and/or street drugs, laxatives, diet pills, etc.

If you see a variety of these warning signs in a friend or family member, it may be a good idea to take some sort of action.

Educating Yourself

Before discussing your concerns with your loved one, it’s always a good idea to educate yourself on eating disorders. Educate yourself by reading anything about eating disorders. You can refer to read books, pamphlets, or other articles on this blog. Make sure that you identify what kind of eating disorder you believe that they have, as there are different information on different types of eating disorders.

Many people who don’t “look like they have an eating disorder” based on their weight, gender, or skin color are not identified as having an eating disorder by medical professionals. — Alexis Conason Psy.D.

Approaching Your Loved On


It’s important to remember that in a lot of situations, the person in question will often continue to deny that they have a problem. For this reason, be sure to approach the topic in a loving, compassionate manner. Avoid any kind of persecuting or confrontational tone. Make sure to tell your friend or family member that you’re speaking to them about their possible eating disorder because you care about them, and you are in no way trying to belittle them.

Avoid any type of ultimatums or promises, as this can make things worse. Remind them that you think that they’re beautiful, even if they don’t believe you. A good idea would be to tell them that you’ll help them every step of the way in practicing healthy eating and exercise habits. However, remember to recommend some kind of treatment. They may deny it, but remind them of your concerns and always be open to them. Support is the most important thing that you can offer to your loved one, and they may not want to receive treatment. If the situation is becoming worse, it may be time to tell someone about it.

Seeking Treatment


A majority of those with an eating disorder will insist that they don’t have one. If this is the case, it’s not helpful to try and convince them that they have a problem. Recommendations and suggestions are the best way to try in getting a friend or family member to seek some kind of treatment. The best course of action would be to recommend to them that they should speak to a healthcare professional, whether that be their physician, a psychologist, or a nutritionist.

Sometimes attitudes and behaviors emerge in response to the overwhelming despair and hopelessness that accompanies watching a loved one starving herself/himself. — Judy Scheel Ph.D., L.C.S.W., CEDS

It’s also a good idea to look around in your area for treatment centers that may be able to help them. Don’t force them to go, but it’s helpful to discuss the idea with them. Remember that you can’t make them do anything. Your role as their friend is to be supportive and help them in their journey to recovery.