Roughly 9% of people in the United States will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives, and every 52 minutes, someone in the country dies as a direct result of eating disorders. Fortunately, the risk of serious health complications declines with treatment. Knowing how to help someone with an eating disorder can allow you to take action and encourage a friend or family member who’s struggling to get started on the path to recovery.
When Should You Address Someone’s Eating Issues?
The first step to learning how to help someone with an eating disorder is being able to recognize the warning signs. Some signs that a person may be struggling with an eating disorder include:
- Frequently making excuses to skip meals
- Avoiding situations involving food
- Not consuming entire categories of food like fat or carbohydrates
- Measuring and weighing portions
- Eating very small portions
- Playing with food rather than eating it at every meal
- Taking diet pills and supplements, especially in excessive amounts
- Abusing stimulants, laxatives and other medications to control or lose weight
- Consuming large quantities of food in a short time
- Hiding empty food wrappers and packaging
- Hoarding large amounts of food, particularly sweets and other junk foods
- Making frequent trips to the bathroom after eating
- Running water every time they go into the bathroom
- Using large amounts of breath mints or mouthwash to hide the smell of vomit
- Exercising excessively, particularly after eating large meals
- Showing symptoms of frequent vomiting like sore throat, discolored teeth or upset stomach
- Criticizing their own appearance
- Weighing themselves frequently
- Rapid changes in weight
- Expressing fear about gaining weight
- Wearing loose-fitting clothing or many layers to hide their body
A person with an eating disorder will likely not exhibit all these symptoms, but if you notice a few things from this list, you may want to continue exploring how to help someone with bulimia, anorexia and other eating disorders.
How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder
There are some things you can do to help a loved one with an eating disorder. Here are some tips to get you started.
Eating disorders are complex and involve both physical and mental factors. More than 10 eating disorders are recognized by medical professionals. Each one has its own set of symptoms, characteristics, risk factors and potential physical and mental health effects.
While you don’t need to diagnose your loved one, having a thorough understanding of the most common types of eating disorders can empower you and allow you to better understand them. Check out trusted resources like the National Institute of Mental Health and the websites of universities, hospitals and eating disorder rehabilitation facilities to get the facts before you approach your loved one.
Be Ready for Denials
Often, people with eating disorders go to great lengths to hide their problems, and they may not be willing to admit to having an issue initially. Be ready for the person to deny it. They may even become defensive or hostile.
Recognize that a bad reaction isn’t personal. Stay calm and stick to the facts. Gently point out the behaviors that concern you, and tell them why you’re worried. Point out the potential consequences of eating disorders if you feel it may be beneficial. If they refuse to listen or become so upset that they no longer hear you, change the subject temporarily and return to it at another time.
Prepare to Listen
Once your loved one accepts that they do have a problem, they’ll need a safe place to talk about their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Often, the secret of how to help someone with an eating disorder is just to be quiet and let them talk. Resist the urge to interrupt and focus on what they’re saying rather than trying to craft your response.
Ask questions to gain a better understanding. Show you’re listening by nodding and looking at them while they speak. Restate their words by saying things like, “It sounds like you’re saying…” or “So let me make sure I understand….”
Realize There Is No Magic Fix
As someone who doesn’t have a disordered relationship with food, the solution may seem simple. However, a person with an eating disorder can’t solve the problem just by starting or stopping a behavior. They can’t just choose to eat more to cure anorexia or not keep junk food in the house to stop binge eating.
Even if a person can manage to temporarily stop a behavior, they may act out in another way or ultimately fail at their attempts and become frustrated. Accept that your loved one has a long road to recovery and prepare yourself to travel it with them.
Recognize Your Limitations
As much as you care about your loved one, you likely can’t help them through an eating disorder on your own. Instead of focusing on solving the problem, prioritize helping them connect with mental health professionals with knowledge and training about how to help someone with bulimia and other eating disorders.
Understand that you may even need help getting the person professional care. If you’re a teenager trying to help a friend with an eating disorder, telling an adult you trust, like a parent or teacher, is a good first step. Even as an adult, you may need to enlist the help of other friends and family members to get through to your loved one.
Encourage Them to Seek Help
Ultimately, the best way to help someone with an eating disorder is to get them to seek treatment. Often, a combination of treatments that include counseling, medications, nutritional interventions and other therapies is necessary to overcome eating disorders. Offer to help your loved one research treatment programs, and reassure them that you’ll be by their side every step of the way.
Where to Turn for Help for Someone With an Eating Disorder
If a friend or family member is struggling with an eating disorder, you don’t have to help them face the problem alone. An experienced team of medical and mental health professionals who know how to help with eating disorders is ready to assist you and your loved one. Contact us today to learn more about programs for eating disorders and get them started on the road to recovery.