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How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder

By Lauren Krouse 

We’ve all been there: You’re hanging out with friends and the conversation shifts to someone wanting to lose weight, something they don’t like about their body, or an extreme change to their diet they’re trying. These conversations are so common they’re easy to ignore or dismiss as normal. 

But when they keep coming up or they’re coupled with changes in mood or appearance, you may start to wonder if your friend is struggling with negative body image or even suffering from an eating disorder—and what you can do or say to help. 

To learn how to help someone you love—or yourself—combat negative body image, start here. It can be scary and stressful when you notice warning signs of an eating disorder in someone you care about, but you can make a difference. 

Learn More About Eating Disorders 

Eating disorders are surrounded by so much stigma and so many myths that many of us don’t know what to look for. The first thing you want to do—if you haven’t already—is read up on eating disorders to give yourself the knowledge and confidence you’ll need to notice them and offer support to the people you care about.

Write Out What You’re Worried About

Check out these signs of eating disorders and write down which ones you’ve noticed and why you’re worried about them. Practicing what to say—in an honest and nonjudgmental voice—can help you feel more prepared.

Find a Good Time to Talk

A few questions to ask yourself:

  • When can we talk in private without a lot of distractions?
  • What has helped us have successful but difficult conversations before? 
  • When will we both have the time and energy for a serious talk?

Express Your Concerns Without Judgment

It’s normal to feel anxious going into this conversation, and your first impulse may be to unload all your worries (“You never eat! You’re always on the treadmill!”). But that can feel accusatory, dial up stress, and make the other person shut down or feel defensive. 

You may also be tempted to use humor or minimize your concerns to avoid conflict. Instead, use “I” statements and calmly share specific examples of why you’re worried. Think: “I’ve noticed you haven’t been eating lunch with us anymore” or “I’m worried about how much you’ve been exercising.” 

Don’t Make Promises or Demands

You want to be supportive, but don’t take it too far and make promises you can’t keep, such as, “I won’t tell anyone” or “I won’t bring this up ever again.” Also avoid giving them rules or orders to get better, such as, “You have to eat” or “Just stop doing this!” 

People with eating disorders often already feel a lot of guilt and cannot control or even understand what’s going on by themselves. You don’t want to contribute to keeping things a secret or add to the fear and shame they may already be experiencing.

Encourage Them to Get Professional Support

Let them know eating disorders are serious—but fully treatable—health conditions. Like anyone else with a serious health condition, they deserve care and treatment. Acknowledge that recovery is possible even though getting help can feel really scary—and you’re there to support them. If they’re open to it, offer to connect them with resources and let them know they’re just one call, text, or chat away from people who know exactly what to do. 

Be Ready for Pushback

Be ready for the other person to be unhappy or overwhelmed by the conversation, but stay calm and consistent with your own observations and care for them as they go through waves of reaction. For some people with eating disorders, it’s a relief to feel seen and supported—especially if they’ve been struggling alone for a long time. Others may become angry or upset, insist they can deal with it on their own, or deny there’s something wrong. 

All these responses are normal. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a strong reaction, know that you’ve done the right thing by bringing up the topic. Don’t give up. Keep checking in. Let them know you care and you’ll be there for them. You can also ask them if there’s anyone else they’d rather talk to about it.

Get Help From a Trusted Adult

Reach out to an adult you trust, such as a family member, school counselor, coach, or teacher for help. Asking for support—even if your loved one is in denial that they’re in trouble—can be scary and perhaps feel overdramatic, but you’re doing the right thing in a really difficult situation. Both of you deserve support. By taking this step, you could be saving their life.

Reach Out for Professional Support and Advice

Contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders helpline, which is run by licensed therapists who specialize in eating disorders.

Call 866-662-1235 or email info@allianceforeatingdisorders.com to get referrals to all levels of care. The helpline is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST Monday through Friday. If help is not immediately available, your call will be returned as soon as possible. 

If you need help right now:

  • Text HEALING to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day. 
  • Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org
  • If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis. 

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Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.

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