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How do you help a loved one with an eating disorder?

This page has several articles with ideas on how to help.


Helping a Loved One with an Eating DisorderHow to Help a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

  • Approach the person privately when there is enough time to seriously discuss the issue.
  • Offer your observations in a caring but direct manner. Try to be as specific as you can regarding your observations and concerns.
  • Tell the person you are worried and would like them to seek help.
  • Encourage the person to express their feelings openly and listen intently. Do not be judgmental instead ask questions about what was expressed.

Scan this page for several articles on How to Help a Loved One...


Do not argue with the person as to whether or not they have an eating disorder - this will not help. Emphasize that you have heard their feelings and be compassionate. Re-focus on your concerns and fears and indicate that you do not feel things will change without intervention.

Gather information and resources for eating disorder treatment. Present the information to your friend or loved one. Further, express the desire to be of help. Ask them to at least see a professional once before making a "snap judgment" on treatment.

In some cases there is concern that the disorder has reached a life-threatening stage. If the disorder has reached this point enlist mental health professionals who can help you intervene. Stand united and confront the victim strongly and compassionately. Also, if a person is suicidal make sure you get professional help immediately.

Denial is frequently part of the illness, so expect that anger and refusals to seek help may present themselves. You cannot force someone into treatment you can only express your concerns and observations. This scenario may leave you feeling frustrated, angry or helpless. Remember that you can always broach the subject in the future. Let your friend or family member know that if your concerns continue that you would like to discuss the issue with them again and DO IT!

Tell yourself that you have done what you can do. Realize that approaching the subject with your friend/loved one has opened the door to further discussions. These discussions may be more open, honest and may lead to treatment. One can only attempt to intervene but realize that the most effective form of treatment will involve the sufferer wanting and accepting the help provided.
Remember there is hope, there is help.....seek it for yourself if necessary.

*Adapted from "How to help a loved one into counseling" by Dr. Kevin Grold

How to tell if a Loved One Has an Eating Disorder
by Harriet Beitscher Campbell

There is no single sign of an eating disorder, notes Beitscher Campbell. Each disorder—from binge eating to body dysmorphic disorder—has its own signs, and each individual will operate differently.

“If a loved one is obese or struggling with compulsive eating, also known as Binge Eating Disorder, it is common to see weight fluctuation,” Beitscher Campbell says, typically due to yo-yo diets. “If you find food wrappers or boxes in closets, under the bed or in cars, you know your loved is ‘sneak eating.’ If they show signs of shakiness and irritability, they could be skipping meals—breakfast is common.”
Beitscher Campbell offers the following symptoms as a signal for an Bulimia: Going to the restroom directly after meals; increased dental problems (cavities); increased heart burn; callouses on knuckles; “chipmunk cheeks” (bloated face); broken blood vessels in the eye due to self-induced vomiting; restaurant avoidance.

Anorexia Nervosa, on the other hand, has symptoms such as hair loss, menstrual cycle cessation, weight loss, food rituals such as cutting food into minuscule pieces, constant dizziness or lightheadedness and obsessive exercising.

Because eating disorders differ greatly between individuals, it’s common that your friend or family member could have a combination disorder or a disorder that doesn’t fall into another category. Perhaps they move between binging and severe restriction, or exercise excessively and sneak eating. These disorders, labeled Eating Disorder Otherwise Not Specified (EDNOS), are still dangerous and need to be addressed.

Eating disorders can be much more dangerous than they initially appear. It’s not just about being under or overweight. Long-term abuse can lead to diabetes, weakening of bones, heart failure, auto-immune disorders and more.

It’s important to keep in mind that your friend or family member’s issue with foods stems from a deeper problem. Similar to drug addiction, drugs are only a symptom, explains Beitscher Campbell. There are usually other underlying issues, such as feelings of shame, depression, anxiety and rage.

“People will ‘eat at people’ when they are angry,” says Beitscher Campbell.

How to Approach Them

If you suspect your loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, approaching them can be difficult. They may not be open to assistance or willing to talk. The number one thing you can do, according to Beitscher Campbell, is approach them without judgement and focus on how much you care for them.

You can begin by simply saying “I love you, this is not a judgement,” and continue to share the signs you’ve witnessed and ask if they’ve considered seeing a doctor. The worst thing you can do is accuse or alienate, so make sure to show support and encouragement, no matter how hard it is.

“People that sneak, binge eat or purge often feel shame,” says Beitscher Campbell. Eating disorders are not about willpower. They’re a genuine disease.

“If a loved one has cancer, think how they would need empathy, supportive understanding and love,” says Beitscher Campbell. “The same goes for a loved one with an eating disorder.”

How Can You Help?

Now that you’ve approached them, how can you help? If you can, encourage your loved one to see a doctor, where lab work can show signs of specific eating disorders and the doctor can then refer them to a Certified Eating Disorders Specialist or Certified Eating Disorders Nutritionist.

Therapy is also a very effective option to suggest. If your loved one is a family member, family therapy can be extremely beneficial, especially if the eating disorder is impacting the entire family unit.

If your loved one refuses to see a doctor or mental health professional, remind them you’re always there to talk and suggest a support group either online or in-person. Beitscher Campbell recommends Overeaters Anonymous (OA), Anorexic Bulimic Anonymous (ABA), HOW meetings or Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA).

What to Avoid

Since it’s imperative to approach your loved one with genuine support, there are several things Beitscher Campbell suggests to avoid.
Giving unwarranted advice, telling the overweight person they need to lose weight or telling the underweight person they need to gain weight, should all be avoided. If you’re a parent, don’t control your child’s food intake, force them to eat or lock up the fridge. These could easily trigger a negative response or lead to rebellion.

It’s also important to pay attention to how you’re speaking about your loved one’s physical person.
Beitscher Campbell explains that if someone suffers from bulimia or anorexia and gains weight, telling them they look “healthy” could backfire, no matter how encouraging you’re trying to be. Eating disorders often result in a distorted perception of self.
“If you say, ‘You look so healthy’ they could interpret that as you calling them ‘fat,’” says Beitscher Campbell.

If your loved one gets defensive, Beitscher Campbell stresses how important it is to honor and respect their space and the message they are giving you. “They might not be ready to get the help then, but planting a seed is very important.”
While supporting your loved one, don’t forget to support yourself. O-Anon, Nar-Anon, Al-Anon or Co-Dependency Anonymous offer meetings for family members of loved ones with addictions, including food addictions, suggests Beitscher Campbell. These groups teach how to focus on yourself while helping your loved one get the help they need.

“Food is the most legal drug in the world,” says Beitscher Campbell. There is no way for you to change that. But you can offer endless support, understanding and compassion.

click for Ms. Campbell's profile

Helping a Loved One with an Eating Disorder 

by Susan Rosener, CAC, EDC

Do you know why you are reading this article? I do. You either have an eating disorder or you know someone who does. More than likely, if you are not concerned for yourself, it is a family member or a close friend that’s making you crazy.

Eating disorders affect everyone associated with the person afflicted. I receive at least 10 calls a week from friends and family members that are terribly confused. They don’t know how to help. They don’t know what questions to ask, or even if they had some idea, they don’t know how to ask. They are always afraid they are making things worse. They don’t know how to deal with the mood swings, the lying, sneaking behavior, the gain or lose of tremendous weight, the sound of vomiting in the bathroom, or the fear of finding that person dead at any given moment. They are tired of being raged at. They are tired of giving logical, intelligent solutions and not being heard!

It can take many years for family and friends to realize that this in not a problem that one grows out of. Nor does a healthy diet plan solve. We are talking about ”Mental Illness.” Yes the forbidden word, “Mental Illness.” The quicker you realize that this behavior is not only abnormal, but hysterical, the more you will realize it is out of your league to treat. So you see, the family has a tremendous role in the recovery and treatment of their loved one. The faster you break your own denial, the faster you can insist on the appropriate help. I do mean, “INSIST.”

If years have gone by and your loved one is still suffering, without getting treatment, it’s time for some serious action on your part. Insist they get help or you will have them committed. Sounds harsh? If you don’t do something now, you will be standing over their coffin wondering why you didn’t do something. (Twenty percent will die.) Afraid they will hate you? They already do hate you! You have been a constant bother, interfering with their obsessive -compulsive behavior. 

Outpatient treatment is suggested if the person is healthy enough to attend sessions. Sounds crazy, but sometimes the person is too lethargic from not eating, and or binging and purging to comprehend what’s going on in a session. I have had people too obese to walk up four steps to enter my office. A doctor friend of mine was delighted when I told him he could call 911 if someone with an eating disorder refuses to seek hospitalization and he is in fear for their life. He said, “ We never learned about eating disorders in med school.”

If you are connected in any way with this disorder, go to the library, read all you can on the subject. Seek your own therapy. Learn! Learn! Learn! This is not a hopeless situation but an enlightening one for all involved. Quality of life is available to those who seek it. There are many people walking around thanking god for their eating disorder or someone else’s. It made them grow up and face life on lives terms. Believe me, it’s worth the journey.

Susan Rosener, CAC, EDC profile click here 

For the Family

Focus on feelings and interpersonal relationships - not on food and weight. Family members are often the forgotten members, especially other children. It is important that they talk about their feelings. Do not let the eating disordered family member disrupt the entire household. The family should go on with their lives as normally as possible.

Do not allow the eating disorder family member to shop, cook or feed the family. Do not let the eating disordered family member dominate the rest of the families eating patterns. In nurturing others, eating disorder sufferers are denying their own need for food. Families should go on with normal eating patterns. These details will need to be worked out with the therapist.

Set limits in a caring, reasonable, but firm manner.
Help the family show affection and appreciation for each other. Underneath disordered eating is a lack of self-worth; thus unconditional love goes a long way.

Work on how to avoid power struggles and find alternative ways of dealing with problems as they arrive. Let the therapist and/or physician deal with "highly-charged" issues such as weight.

Realize that there are no quick solutions. Demanding change, and/or berating the eating disordered family member will not bring about change or a positive result. Be patient.

Avoid having the eating disordered family member make too many decisions about food and other issues. Control is a big issue that must be addressed in therapy. One can not attempt to over control the eating disordered family member. The therapist can help balance out these issues.

Parents will need to examine alternatives to their current behaviors (i.e. yelling, pleading, etc. Family members should write in journals, write letters to each other, call the therapist, and write down situations that they need assistance with and provide to therapist and family sessions.
The family needs to talk about all kinds of issues - not just focus on the problems or the eating disorder.

*Adapted from Your Dieting Daughter: Is She Dying for Attention? by Carolyn Costin, M.A., M.Ed. MFT published by Brunner/Mazel, New York, New York. ​To learn more about Monte Nido, click here​​​

In Partnership with the American Eating Disorder Association- -SINCE 1999