Helping Someone Who Has an Eating Disorder

If someone you know has an eating disorder, you can help. The problem is that the person who has the eating disorder may deny having a problem. That denial may leave you, the supporter, feeling powerless, confused, frightened, or even angry.

It helps to understand that people with anorexia refuse to believe that their eating patterns are abnormal. Binge eaters and those with bulimia are more likely to recognize that they have a problem, but they may still be skittish about seeking treatment.

People with eating disorders may deny that they are too thin or that they purge or vomit, despite the mounds of evidence that you may be tempted to present to them. Don’t push them — and don’t show them documentation of your case.

Instead, first realize that eating disorders require professional treatment. Do some background research on treatment, referral centers, and support groups in your area (check with your local school system, university, medical center, or mental health center for recommendations and help). Ask your family doctor for an eating disorder referral. If you’re a student, see the school nurse or school-counseling center.

If you decide to talk to the person about the eating disorder, it’s critical to do so in a nonthreatening, caring, and nonjudgmental way. Consider the following approaches:

  • Listen and be supportive.

  • Care and nurture.

  • Provide information.

  • Encourage professional help.

  • Try not to be judgmental.

  • Avoid dwelling on eating, weight, or appearance.

  • Suggest rather than insist that the person eat, not eat, or change attitudes about eating.

  • Try not to nag, criticize, or shame the person.

  • Most important, don’t ignore the problem. Instead, help the person get the help that she needs.

Remember, too, that recovering from an eating disorder takes a long time. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Just because symptoms are no longer visible doesn’t mean that the disorder is cured. Changing behaviors and attitudes about food can take months or years. So hang in there — and be the support that your friend or loved one so desperately needs.

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