How to Help Someone With Disordered Eating

As a psychotherapist mostly specializing in women with food and body image issues, I often get questions via e-mail and phone regarding how family and friends can help a loved one who is experiencing disordered eating. I have some very valuable resources on this topic on my main website, under “disordered eating.” I recommend that you peruse these as they have a load of invaluable information for both people with disordered eating and for those who want to support them. For this article, I have gathered what I think are some of the best sources of information on the topic. I hope they are helpful to you or someone you know.

The first section is adapted from The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (Canada) website: I strongly urge you to check out this website as it has a lot of great information and useful resources:

It is often difficult for family and friends to understand why someone they love is experiencing food and weight problems.Though frustrating, it is important to realize that only the person experiencing the difficulty can make the decision to get help and choose what kind of help they need and want.
An eating disorder is a coping strategy that an individual uses to deal with deeper problems which are too painful or difficult to address directly. There is a wide range of services available, not all of which will be appropriate for the person. It is not beneficial for him/her to stay in a treatment setting that is found to be unhelpful, or possibly even damaging. The sufferer is the one who needs to make the ultimate decision about the help they get.

When first approaching your friend or family member, understand that they might not welcome your concern and may even react with anger or denial. They will discuss their eating disorder with someone when they feel ready. They will probably feel more able to do so if they know that you are concerned, but not going to force them into anything before they are ready (an exception may be if the condition constitutes a medical emergency). Be prepared for the possibility that a discussion about their eating problems might not lead to any change in attitude or behaviour on their part. Again, this is because the person may have very good reasons for not giving up the eating disorder as a “coping strategy”.


1)Have Patience-anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating can take a long time to resolve. However, recovery is possible. Nothing should be forced upon anyone, as their choices should be their own. This approach encourages empowerment.

2)Support the person-let them know you care and that you are aware of what is happening. Listen attentively and allow the person to express their feelings. Be prepared for a range of emotional responses such as denial and anger.

3)The influences of language-avoid discussions about weight, body shape, fat and food. Focus on activities that are not associated with food or appearance.

4)Persistence and love- maintain a relationship with the person. Do not give up! Though it can be difficult to accept, it is their vulnerability to these destructive patterns that facilitate their preoccupation with weight loss. Keep the lines of communication open. Although the person may pull away from you, do not take their behavior personally.

5)Information is power-learn about disordered eating: support groups, signs, symptoms, books, facts, myths, resources, peer support, treatments, counselling, healthy living, body image, self-esteem, etc. Recovery can be a frustrating process and this knowledge can alleviate feelings of powerlessness.

6) The value of friendship- do not take on the role of therapist. It is the trust between friends that has great value in a healing relationship. Do not badger the person about eating; you cannot cure them. They have to take responsibility for changes. It will happen when they are ready.

7) Avoid Judgement- reflect on and examine your beliefs towards body shape, diets and fat prejudice. Personal comments may unknowingly promote a desire for thinness.

8)Provide Resources-assist the individual to seek help. Be there for them in the most appropriate way that both of you feel comfortable with.

9)Let go of blame-disordered eating can be a manifestation of many forms of stress. Blame reinforces a sense of failure and distance. Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and decreased self-confidence are usually contributing factors.

10)Keep in touch-recovery does not occur in isolation. This may mean seeking advice about your concerns from family members, friends, a school counsellor, or a public health nurse. Your efforts may save a life. Early intervention increases chances of recovery and decreases the chance of relapse later on.

*Adapted from the NationalEating Disorders Information Centre (Toronto) and the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association (Windsor)


·Learn all you can about anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Genuine awareness will help you avoid judgmental or mistaken attitudes about food, weight, body shape, and eating disorders.
·Discourage the idea that a particular diet, weight, or body size will automatically lead to happiness and fulfillment.
·Choose to challenge the false belief that thinness and weight loss are great, while body fat and weight gain are horrible or indicate laziness, worthlessness, or immorality.
·Avoid categorizing foods as “good/safe” vs. “bad/dangerous.” Remember, we all need to eat a balanced variety of foods.
·Decide to avoid judging others and yourself on the basis of body weight or shape. Turn off the voices in your head that tell you that a person’s body weight says anything about their character, personality, or value as a person.
·Avoid conveying an attitude that says, “I will like you better if you lose weight, or don’t eat so much, etc.”
·Become a critical viewer of the media and its messages about self-esteem and body image. Talk back to the television when you hear a comment or see an image that promotes thinness at all costs. Rip out (or better yet, write to the editor about) advertisements or articles in your magazines that make you feel bad about your body shape or size.
·Be a model of healthy self-esteem and body image. Recognize that others pay attention and learn from the way you talk about yourself and your body. Choose to talk about yourself with respect and appreciation. Choose to value yourself based on your goals, accomplishments, talents, and character. Avoid letting the way you feel about your body weight and shape determine the course of your day. Embrace the natural diversity of human bodies and celebrate your body’s unique shape and size.

* Adapted from the National Eating Disorders Association’s website: