How to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are heartbreaking diseases, and it can be especially difficult to watch a loved one go through that and not know how to help. Luckily, I’ve compiled a list of what is and is not helpful for someone with an eating disorder to minimize your confusion.

Don’t mention how they look

No matter what you do, don’t mention how your loved one with an eating disorder looks, especially their weight. Even comments that you perceive as helpful, such as “You are so skinny” and “You look so healthy,” can be warped inside that person’s mind and encourage the eating disorder. It’s best not to mention at all how the person looks to avoid this.

Don’t mention numbers

People with eating disorders often have triggers. Triggers are things people do or say that can cause anxiety and/or mental distress to that particular person. Everyone has different triggers, but the most common trigger for people with eating disorders is the inclusion of numbers. Using specific numbers like weight, BMI, calories, etc. can really trigger someone with an eating disorder. It’s best to avoid sharing numbers for the sake of that person’s recovery.

Do avoid certain topics

As mentioned above, most people with eating disorders have triggers. It’s usually better to avoid topics that are triggering to that person. Some common triggers are weight, BMI, diets, calories, exercise, skipping meals, or anything that may have to do with that person’s disorder.

Do eat normally around them

Eating disorders are incredibly competitive in nature. A person with an eating disorder likely looks around the table at meals and compares themself with everyone else, and they probably also assign a lot of their self-worth to how little they eat. If someone around them is on a strict diet to lose weight, this can be very triggering, and this may cause the person to engage in more disordered behavior. The same thing may happen if someone eats a very small portion size. Please try to eat as normally as possible around that person.

Don’t place too much importance on the food

Yes, it is important for that person to eat and get all their nutrients. No, you are not the eating disorder police. So long as that person is in treatment and working with a dietitian, they are likely getting the help they need. Reminding them that they need to meet their meal plan can be helpful, but watching them like a hawk during meal times can add undue stress. That person would probably prefer distractions of some sort (like conversation) at meal time to relax them rather than add anxiety.

Do distract them after meals

If you know that this person has a history of purging, help them by providing a fun or distracting activity after meals to distract them from their intense urges. You might also need to make sure that he/she doesn’t go to the bathroom after eating as well. If the person absolutely has a bathroom emergency after a meal, talking to them through the door to make sure they aren’t purging can be helpful.

Do listen to their individual advice

Ask them what is and is not helpful. Only they can tell you what helps them individually. Additionally, once they give you advice, make sure to adhere to it. Even if you think it sounds silly, remember that what can be a trivial thing to you can be a trigger for someone with an eating disorder.

Do love and support them

No matter what happens, let the person know that you’re there for them. Listen to them. Remind them that you’ll always be there to support them. Be patient and gentle and kind. Lastly, love them unconditionally.

If you’re in a crisis call 911 or a national hotline. The national eating disorders hotline is:  1-800-931-2237

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