Approaching Someone With An Eating Disorder

Approaching someone that you believe to be suffering with an eating disorder is something which is difficult and will require sensitivity. Unfortunately, due to the more recent fashions for low fat diet and ‘healthy’ practices such as juice cleanses and detox diets, eating disorders can exist and stay hidden behind a ‘healthy diet’ disguise. You may notice that a friend has lost a significant amount of weight or that he or she seems to be acting differently around food. You may suspect that something is amiss with them, but its hard to know what to do about it. Whatever you do, do not just dismiss your fears – eating disorders are more common than you think!

Let them know that you love them and that you will be there to help them.

The subject of food is one that lies close to the emotional centers of our brain because our brains are wired to understand that food is necessary for survival. For this reason, people often get stressed when their behaviors around food are questioned. Approaching a friend who you suspect has an eating disorder is not an easy task, but it is essential if you are worried about someone that you do something. If you cannot talk to them about it yourself, make sure that you alert someone else that you know can help you figure out what the best thing is to do.

Before you approach someone you suspect has an eating disorder, it is very important that you educate yourself. There are plenty of resources in our about eating disorders page to give you a good starting point; there are also books that will help you understand what is going on. Below is a list of some things to keep in mind when approaching someone if that person is a peer or a minor:

  • Avoid approaching them when food is present, they will more than likely already be stressed. Your first approach should be at a non-mealtime situation.
  • Assure them that they are not alone and that you love them and want to help in any way that you can.
  • Encourage them to seek help.
  • Do not comment on their weight or appearance.
  • Do not blame the individual and do not get angry with them.
  • Be patient, expect to be rebuffed, stay calm and focused.
  • Do not take on the role of a therapist – but do encourage them to seek one out, and keep checking in on the progress of this if they agree to do so.

It is important to remember that when you first approach the person you suspect has an eating disorder, they may react with anger or they may deny that anything is wrong. Stay calm, nonjudgmental and try and make it clear that you’re asking them about an eating disorder is not a judgment, but that you are concerned for their well-being.

In cases where the person is extremely underweight to a point that their health is at risk or is bingeing/purging many times a day, you may need to speak to a doctor about a forced hospitalization. At this point as a friend, you should inform a college doctor, school teacher or person in authority and leave them to do their job.

Watching someone you love develop and suffer from an eating disorder can be frightening. You might find that it affects you in a negative way causing you to experience feelings of guilt and confusion. Remember that the most you can do to help someone recover is guide them towards the treatment that they need. You must also be careful with the remarks you make to the person suffering. Below is a list of a few remarks that should never be made when talking to someone with an eating disorder because they will usually only drive the person away or cause them more inner pain and guilt:

  • “Just sit down and eat like a normal person.” Eating disorders are not simply about choice, there is a significant mental component and biological basis to the disorder which is preventing the sufferer from eating normally.
  • “Why are you doing this to me?” This is not personal, the sufferer is not trying to hurt you.
  • “You’ve put on weight, you look great.” Try not to draw attention to a persons weight. This is not a polite form of address regardless of a persons size.
  • “I’ll help to fatten you up.” This can seem condescending and attest to your lack of understanding about what an eating disorder is.
  • “You look terrible.” It is wise not to comment on the appearance of a person who is suffering from an eating disorder.
  • “You’re ruining our family.” Comments like this only causes the sufferer more guilt. It will not motivate them to eat, instead, it will cause them distress.
  • “If you think you are fat, you must think that I’m obese.” Most sufferers do not make judgments regarding the weight of other people.
  • “I wish I had that problem.” or “I wish I could be anorexic for a day.” This is very condescending and shows that you are not educated as to what an eating disorder is. Eating disorders are not choices
  • “I will give you 6 months to get over this.” Recovery is not a simple linear path. Telling a person that they have to recover in a short amount of time will add even more pressure to them. Additionally, if they do not recover in the time limit you set, they will believe they have failed. Everyone is different and people recover at the rate that is relevant to them. This is not to say that you should not encourage, but do not place unachievable time limits on a person in recovery. Recovery does take a long time, so everyone involved needs to be patient.
  • “I barely ate once for a week, so I know what you are going through.” Dieting and eating disorders are very different, therefore it is unlikely that someone who has not suffered an eating disorder can truly understand what it feels like.

When talking to someone with an eating disorder, emphasize the fact that you care and want to help. People suffering from an eating disorder are most likely to recover when they are surrounded by supportive, loving friends and family. They need professional help as well, of course.

Family and friends may also benefit from some professional help or a support group, too, since coping with a loved one with a serious illness like eating disorders can be very difficult.

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Additional Reading:

Importance Of Getting Help And Being Honest In Medical And Therapy Appointments
Types of Eating Disorder Treatment
Enhanced CBT for Eating Disorders
Anosognosia (Denial)

Updated by Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Written by Colleen Thompson – 2001


Coping With Someone You Suspect Has An Eating Disorder pamphlet – Sudbury General Hospital Eating Disorders Clinic (information from pamphlet obtained from NEDIC)

Many thanks to everyone who submitted comments for “what not to say”.