How to support someone with an eating disorder
Eating disorders can be traumatic experiences for all involved. For friends and family, watching your loved one go
through a painful experience that you can’t understand and don’t know how to remedy can leave you feeling helpless, and it can be difficult to know the ‘right’ things to say or do.
If you're supporting a loved one through eating disorder recovery, this guide is a good starting point. However, it's informed by personal experience, not medical expertise, so we'd recommend also seeking professional support if you think this could be helpful.
Supporting your loved one through eating disorder recovery
1. Just be there
Eating disorder recovery can be a turbulent time, so having a solid and stable source of support is often vital.
You might not understand what they're going through, but you can make it clear that regardless, you are here to listen, to stand alongside them and be there for them through it all.
In eating disorder recovery, communication is key. Silence and miscommunication are all too common in the early stages of recovery. Many individuals struggle to speak openly about what’s going on for them, or may misinterpret the intentions of those of those who try to help them. Equally, friends and family may stay silent for fear of upsetting their loved one or saying the wrong thing, and the eating disorder can quickly become the elephant in the room.
Speaking openly about how you are all feeling and what you all need is crucial for everyone involved. It’s also worth noting that while this guide is a good starting point, ultimately every individual’s needs will be different, so the best way to know how to support your loved one is to ask them explicitly how they’re doing, what they need and how you can best be there for them.
You might not understand what they're going through, but you can make it clear that regardless, you are here to listen, to stand alongside them and be there through it all.
Although it's important to make space for difficult feelings, distraction is also an important strategy in recovery. Sometimes you just need help getting through a difficult meal or day, and having someone to watch a film with or just take your mind off things can be so helpful.
On a more macro level, friends and family can provide useful affirmations of the world outside of an eating disorder. When you have an ED, or when you're working through the recovery process, the world can feel very small, revolving exclusively around food anxieties, meal plans, appointments, and so on. Friends and family can be a helpful counterpoint to this, providing distractions from eating disorder thoughts, and helping individuals rediscover parts of themselves that have nothing to do with their eating disorders.
4. Avoid diet and exercise chat
Diet culture is very entrenched in our society, and people with eating disorders tend to be particularly attuned to this kind of conversation. A thoughtless comment you make about a particular food or habit may inadvertently inspire a new food rule or make a meal much more challenging. Some common topics to avoid:
Talking about certain foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’; ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’
Commenting on how much you or anyone else has eaten, or on a particularly large food portion before eating
Details regarding how much exercise you or anyone else has done that day
Anything involving numbers (calories, weight, hours at the gym etc.)
5. Compliment them on things that have nothing to do with appearance
Try to also avoid body talk where possible – whether that’s commenting on your own body in a negative way, or the body of the person struggling. Even comments like ‘you look well’ can be difficult for someone struggling with their body image. Instead, focus on compliments that aren’t appearance based. It’s important to affirm that you love and value them regardless of what they look like, and complimenting them on more fundamental attributes can help build confidence in other aspects of their lives.
You can still tell them they look nice, but try to focus on things that have nothing to do with body shape (like hair, accessories and clothing).
6. Help them get help
Seeking professional help for an eating disorder can feel like a very daunting prospect, so supporting your loved one through this – whether that’s financially, logistically or emotionally – can be an important, practical way to help.
For some, accepting they have an eating disorder that may require professional help is a very difficult step, so family and friends can be invaluable in opening the conversation and, if needs be, nudging them in the right direction. As a general rule, it’s always worth having the difficult conversation when it comes to seeking professional help: worst case, you might temporarily upset your loved one; best case, you’ll help them get vital support.
That said, some people prefer to seek professional support alone without the involvement of friends or family, so again make sure you listen to the individual and respect whatever works best for them.
7. Look after yourself too
If you’re supporting someone through an eating disorder, you’re going to need support too. This could mean engaging in family therapy (which is proven to be really valuable in eating disorder recovery), but might also mean seeking out your own therapist, finding a carer support group, or just making sure you surround yourself with a strong support network and are asking for help when you need it.
Here are some excellent resources for carers:
Advice from our Instagram community
A little while ago, we asked the experts (i.e. our wonderful Instagram community) two questions:
What are helpful things to say to someone with an eating disorder?
What do you need when you are struggling?
We got some very moving and insightful responses. The overwhelming message was to 'just be there' as a solid presence through distress and uncertainty. Here are some of our favourites:
WHAT TO SAY
"It's okay, you're going to get through this"
HOW YOU CAN HELP
"We need rules and support, but mostly compassion"
A final message from us
Remember that you are not a medical professional. Your job, as a friend or family member of someone struggling, is not to 'fix' your loved one - there are people professionally trained to do that. It's also important not to blame yourself: eating disorders are complex illnesses with complex causes. It's not your fault that someone you love is struggling.
Your job is simply to be there. To listen, to care and to tell them that you care as much as possible. This will be a tough time for you all. There will be ups and downs, and the road might be longer than you anticipate. Having you as a stable presence through it all is everything that your loved one needs from you. Look after yourselves and each other, and you will all come out of this so much stronger.