How to Help a Friend You Think Has an Eating Disorder

How to help a friend you think has an eating disorder

How to help a friend you think has an eating disorder

Something’s up with your friend. Sometimes she eats too much. Other times, she eats too little, and she just doesn’t seem like herself. It’s worrying you because she’s always been this strong, awesome woman who lived life the way she wanted.

It seems like she may have an eating disorder, and you feel like you should do something — but you’re lost about what to do. How do you approach a delicate topic like an eating disorder without making your friend upset?

Fortunately, you’re not alone. Considering that 30 million Americans will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, there’s a good chance someone out there is going through the same things as your friend — and there’s probably someone who helped that person overcome their eating disorder.

For your part, here’s what you can do for your friend:

1. Understand Your Reasons for Helping Your Friend

Why do you want to step in now? Is it because you’re genuinely concerned for your friend’s health? Or is it because you’re frustrated that she can’t — or won’t — eat with you at your favourite restaurant anymore? When your motives come from a place of compassion, it’s easier to do the “right” thing for someone in your friend’s situation.

2. Read as Much as You Can About Eating Disorders

You may have heard about anorexia and bulimia, but have you heard about orthorexia? How about Prader-Willi Syndrome or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)? Your friend could be suffering from any of these. If you truly want to help her, read as much as you can about the different types of eating disorders. What you find out might surprise you.

3. Prepare to Talk to Her

No matter how good your intentions, it’s always possible your friend will not be thrilled to find out someone thinks she has a problem. Since eating disorders are often caused by a variety of psychological and emotional factors, such as low self-esteem or perfectionism, your attempt to help her might make her angry and defensive. Brace yourself for that reaction, and go ahead anyway.

4. Talk to Her in a Safe, Calming Environment

When it comes to conversations that start with “Girl, we need to talk,” it’s always best to do it in a place where everyone can say what they want to say without fear of judgment. You can do it at your house or at hers. Just be sure you avoid any place that’ll remind her of food or broaching the subject when you’re both angry and emotional.

5. Choose Your Words Carefully

Now this is the tricky part. You want to be honest with her, but you also want to be kind. To do that, here’s what to say to her.

  • Be matter-of-fact. “I notice you often throw up after eating.”

  • Be truthful about your feelings, but avoid blaming your friend. For example, say, “I’m worried about you” instead of, “You’re worrying me, you know that?”

  • Offer a helping hand. “If there’s anything I can do for you, please tell me.”

Likewise, there are things you don’t say to people with eating disorders:

  • Avoid trivialising or making light of the situation. For example, “You don’t feel like eating? Just pig out like I do!”

  • Avoid threats or manipulative statements, such as, “If you don’t get your diet together, I won’t be your friend anymore.”

  • Avoid anything that implies your friend is causing you problems. “Honestly, I can’t handle you and your weird eating habits!”

  • Avoid tiptoeing around the subject of food. Instead, ask her things like, “What do you want for dinner?” as you normally would.

  • Avoid playing therapist. Leave the therapy to the professionals.

If, despite keeping these dos and don’ts in mind, your friend reacts badly to your attempts to help, that’s when you move on to the next step.

6. Ask for Help From Trusted Third Parties

Telling a third party about your friend’s problem might feel like a betrayal. After all, if she chooses not to tell anyone, why should you? But if she’s showing signs of an eating disorder and it’s interfering with the way she lives her life, it’s important that she seek a doctor’s help ASAP.

7. Stay With Her Before, During and After Treatment

To say that having an eating disorder is tough would be an understatement. Your friend may realise that she needs help deep down, but because of fear, denial or other factors, she may be reluctant to do anything. That’s why it’s important for you to be there for her, no matter what she chooses to do in the end. She needs to know she’s not alone with her struggles.

8. Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself

That said, you don’t have to be alone with your struggles, either. Caring for someone with an eating disorder can take its toll, so remember to have a breather once in a while. Eat good food, exercise regularly and do what you can to keep your spirits up (in a healthy way, of course). It’s easier to look after someone else when you remember to look after yourself, too.

It’s not too late for your friend to get help. As long as you give her compassion, understanding and support, she’ll stay on the right track. Just don’t forget to care for yourself as much as you care for her.

Have you had a friend battle an eating disorder, or are you going through it with a close friend now? What tips do you have for helping your friend? Let us know in the comments below!

Sarah Landrum

Sarah Landrum recently graduated from Penn State with degrees in Marketing and PR. Now, she's a freelance writer and career blogger sharing advice on navigating the work world and achieving happiness and success in your career. You can find her tweeting on her coffee breaks @SarahLandrum