How To Approach Someone Who Has An Eating Disorder

By Ayanna DeVance, reviewed by Lauren Ranley, MS, RD, LDN

You can support a loved one you believe may be suffering from an eating disorder. We outline ways to approach the subject in a non-judgemental and compassionate manner.

Individuals with eating disorders use food as a coping mechanism for unpleasant or painful feelings. To feel in control, people often restrict their meals, obsessively count calories, or use exercise to compensate for eating certain foods. Overeating, or bingeing, briefly relieves feelings of loneliness, resentment, or unhappiness. People with eating disorders gradually lose the ability to view themselves objectively, and their obsessions with food and weight take over all other aspects of their lives. Finding healthy ways to deal with emotional discomfort and addressing the underlying causes of their eating disorder are the first steps to recovery. 

Even if you don’t feel equipped to help someone tackle their eating disorder behaviors, you can support and promote treatment, which could significantly impact how quickly your loved one recovers.

Are you concerned about someone? Speak up!

It’s crucial to speak up if you see any early indicators of an eating disorder in a loved one. You can be worried that you’re wrong, that you’ll say something that might upset them, or that you’ll annoy the other person. Don’t let these concerns prevent you from expressing your worries, however.

Asking for assistance is frequently feared by those with eating disorders. Others have such poor self-esteem that they don’t feel they deserve any help, while some are battling just as much as you are to find a way to start a conversation about their problem. Without treatment, eating disorders will only worsen, and they can cause severe physical and psychological harm. Chances of successful recovery are better the earlier you begin to assist. Your support and affection may genuinely make a difference.

How to bring up the subject of an eating disorder with someone?

Making a change is rarely an easy choice for someone with an eating disorder. They may have distorted ideas about their body, the world around them, and even your reasons for attempting to help if the eating disorder has left them malnourished. It’s unlikely that intimidating them into eating properly or repeatedly delivering grave warnings about the adverse health effects of their eating problem will be effective. The appeal of eating disorders can be powerful since they frequently play a significant role in a person’s life as a means of coping with negative feelings. You must be cautious when bringing up the matter since you can encounter defensiveness or denial. To help ease the process, you should:

  1. Decide on a good time. Pick a time when there won’t be any interruptions or restrictions so you can talk to the person alone.  Additionally, it’s essential to have conversations when the environment is calm. 
  2. Discuss your concerns in detail. Avoid scolding or lecturing, as doing so will make your loved one defensive. Instead, discuss particular instances and actions you’ve observed, along with your concerns. Your objective at this stage is to express your concerns about the person’s health, how much you love them, and your desire to assist rather than offer solutions.
  3. Be ready for denial and pushback. Your loved one will likely deny having an eating disorder or act irrationally and aggressively. Try to maintain composure, focus, and respect if this occurs. Remember that someone with an eating disorder may feel highly threatened by this discussion. Don’t let it change the course of the discussion.
  4. Be understanding and patient. If the other person initially ignores you, don’t give up. Before they’re ready to open up and accept that they have a problem, it could take some time. Opening up the lines of communication is vital. Regardless of how out of touch they may sound, listen to them without passing judgment if they are willing to speak. Make it clear that you care about them, have faith in them, and that you’ll be there for them whenever they’re ready in whatever capacity they need.

What to avoid:

Do not comment on weight or looks. A person with an eating disorder is already highly concerned with their appearance. Even reassurances that they aren’t overweight feed into their obsession with looking skinny. Instead, focus on their feelings when you speak. 

Do not shame or blame someone. Avoid using the accusing “you” pronoun, such as, “You just need to eat!” Alternatively, “You’re harming yourself needlessly.” Instead, use “I” sentences. For instance, “I find it difficult to see you deteriorate.” 

Encouraging someone to seek help

Aside from providing support, the most critical thing you can do for a person with an eating disorder is advocate for treatment. Encourage your loved one to see a doctor immediately since the longer an eating problem goes unrecognized and untreated, the more damaging it is to the body and the more challenging it is to recover from. Discussing the benefits of visiting a doctor can benefit your loved one. Volunteering to make appointments or going with them on their first visit might be beneficial.

It takes time to recover from an eating disorder. Since there are no miracle treatments or quick remedies, it’s critical to exercise patience and compassion. Don’t place undue pressure on your loved one by establishing improbable objectives or expecting them to make progress according to your schedule. Offer support and inspiration, acknowledge each small victory, and maintain a positive outlook despite difficulties and disappointments.