If you're the friend or loved one of a binge eater, you may be wondering what you can do to help. Like any eating disorder, the right kind of support can be critical as someone begins the journey to overcome binge eating and begins to make healthier, more sustainable choices about food.
Educate yourself about binge eating
Becoming familiar with the basics of binge eating disorder is the best place to start if you want to help a loved one suffering from it. It's painful for people who use overeating as a coping mechanism to explain the ins and outs of their behaviors. If you take time to read and learn about the thoughts and feelings that go along with binge eating, you're better equipped to help.
Let your loved one take the lead
Those who binge or chronically overeat can't expect to get better without seeking out treatment and/or making changes themselves. You can be there for support, but it's up to the sufferer to tackle the problem in his own way and in his own time. If the binge eater seeks treatment for you or because he "should," his efforts to stop binge eating will be short-lived.
Listen without judgment
At times, everyone needs someone to sit down and quietly listen to them without expectation or judgment. Someone who binge eats probably needs a sympathetic ear now more than ever. If your loved one suffers from disordered eating, she wants to be understood, to find ways to express what she thinks and feels, and to come up with ways to stop the madness. Eating disorders are personal, so lending an unconditional and understanding ear is critical to helping someone recover.
Know your limits
No matter how supportive you hope to be, don't feel that you must take on the role of therapist. Even if you've done your research, therapeutic advice should come only from a trained professional. People develop binge eating and other eating disorders for a complicated set of reasons and circumstances, and treating these disorders can be complex and sometimes precarious. Effective long-term treatment often depends on a collaborative approach from a team of eating-disorder professionals.
As people come to terms with their disordered eating, it may take a while to open up to friends and loved ones. It's scary to admit to anyone that food and eating have taken over their lives, and some people may also be frightened by the thought of trying to change their behavior. If someone comes to you to talk about binge or emotional eating, let him know that you understand how serious the situation is and that when he's ready, you'll be there to help in whatever way you can and are available for the long haul. And have patience because the process will, in fact, take time.
Remember that recovery is day to day
Every eating disorder is different, and each person who binge eats is unique. Although there are certainly some promising tried-and-true approaches, there isn't a standard treatment plan that applies to every person and every situation. Focusing on the here and now, literally one bite at a time, will ultimately help your loved one in the long run.
Do not suggest your loved one go on a diet!
Tempting as it may be to offer a solution to someone you care about, dieting is actually a frequent contributor to binge behaviors for many people because it creates a pendulum swing due to its restrictive nature. Instead, suggest that your loved one start by getting proper evaluations and creating structures for support and slow but steady insight and change. Understanding her triggers and examining the root causes of her disordered eating is the first set of primary tasks.
Help tackle some of the day-to-day stressors for your loved one
One significant way to reduce triggers for many bingers is to keep life simple. By helping your loved one reduce his daily stress, you can ultimately make a huge impact. Work together to see what may be helpful in freeing up some time for him to start the process of healing and treatment. Often the little things make a big difference.
Don't talk about how other people look
Those with binge eating disorder are generally very self-conscious about their appearance. Even though many of us do it, by pointing out others' sizes, whether large or small, you may be unintentionally triggering a binge by contributing to your loved one's self-consciousness.
Allow yourself to be a distraction
Boredom is often cited as the number-one trigger for bingeing, so one great way to help your loved one is to try to keep her occupied when she may be at risk. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that, but at the outset, that's what it seems.
One common therapeutic technique is to create a list of activities that bingers can turn to when they feel urges. Let your loved one know that if you're available, you can be on call for her and that you can spend time on the phone or in person until the cravings pass. By all means, suggest but do not pressure her into pursuing a list of alternate activities. If you nag, you may start to be perceived as a trigger yourself. The idea is for someone to slowly become self-motivated and to know that no matter what, you can be counted on for nonjudgmental support.
Make positive comments only
Pointing out the negative, even when your intentions are well-meaning, just make a difficult situation more difficult. Try to refrain from asking questions like, "Did you eat the whole chocolate cake last night?" or "I thought we had more peanut butter in the cabinet. Did you finish it?" Chances are this will only embarrass, shame, or anger your loved one even if you don't mean to be mean or hurtful. Binge eaters feel bad enough after the numbing effects of a huge binge quickly wear off; the last thing they need is someone else, particularly someone important to them, inadvertently contributing to their feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness.
Plan fun, food-free activities
Many social gatherings revolve around food, but you can find tons of fun things to do that don't involve food including going for a walk, attending a concert, or making an appointment at a spa. Anything that's fun, relaxing, and does not involve food should be included on the list of options. Make sure to ask your loved one what he would like to do.
Don't become overly involved
It's commendable to want to help someone recover and live a healthier life, but you can't make someone else change. Once your loved one has committed to working towards recovery, it's best to take a backseat and take your cues from her.
One exception to this rule is to know what to do in an emergency should one arise due to your loved one's disordered eating. Be aware of community resources and gather information about resources for treatment.