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These tips help you offer needed support to a loved one battling an eating disorder.

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Watching a loved one struggle with an eating disorder can make you feel helpless and scared. Regardless of whether a person is dealing with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or another type of disordered eating, these conditions can wreak havoc on a person’s body and mind.

Eating disorders are complex and are not simply a matter of not eating enough or eating too much. The conditions may be triggered by a number of factors, including genetics, personality traits (like perfectionism), cultural pressure, self-esteem issues and/or stress. They can result in numerous physical and psychological health issues, some of which can be serious or may even become life-threatening. But although it can be a lifelong struggle to overcome an eating disorder, there is hope for recovery.

Being supported by loved ones can go a long way in the recovery process. It can be difficult to know what to say or do if someone you love has a known eating disorder – or if you suspect they do and want to help them get the help they need.

Here are 5 ways to support someone who may be struggling with an eating disorder:

    1. Do some research. If you have not experienced an eating disorder yourself, become educated about the condition. It is easy to make assumptions about what causes disordered eating or what the person may be going through, but many preconceived notions are simply not true. Through research, you’ll learn how eating disorders are deep-rooted in issues that often go far beyond just wanting to look a certain way. The more you know about eating disorders, the better equipped you will be to support a loved one who may be dealing with this condition.
    2. Say something. People with eating disorders need help and support. Speaking to a loved one who is struggling in an appropriate and private setting and sharing your concerns about their health is a step that can make a difference. Be prepared for denial or a refusal to discuss your concerns. Keep the conversation non-judgmental and avoid accusations or ultimatums. Although it may be difficult at first, starting the conversation may create an opportunity for your loved one to discuss their challenges and can help them realize they need help. It may also help them to know that you are there to support them in any way they need you.
    3. Don’t comment on your loved one’s appearance. Telling someone “you look great” may sound like a compliment, but for a person struggling with an eating disorder, it can send the wrong message. Trying to convince someone who has an eating disorder that they are okay because of their appearance can backfire. What they see in the mirror will not be influenced by what you tell them they should see.
    4. Avoid public self-critique. In your eyes, you may not love the dimples on your thighs or the way your pants fit these days. But if you are openly criticizing things on your own body in front of someone with an eating disorder, it creates an opportunity for comparison. Not only can comments like these potentially be a trigger for the person, but they can also normalize negative self-talk and perpetuate the pattern.
    5. Know when to seek professional help. Managing an eating disorder can be complex. Although it’s helpful to support someone going through this, keep in mind that your loved one will most likely need more help than you can offer. Since many people won’t initially seek professional help on their own, it’s important for you to recognize when your loved one needs professional help – and for you to figure out how to encourage them to seek that help. Therapists, dietitians and physicians can assist you in finding the right solution to help someone with an eating disorder.

Watching someone you care about struggle with disordered eating can be stressful and heartbreaking. Following these tips leaves you better equipped to help your loved one begin – and stay – on the road to recovery.

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Date Last Reviewed: December 17, 2020

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Nora Minno, RD, CDN

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