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How to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Sep 15, 2022

The name “eating disorder” tends to imply that food is the issue for a person. The truth is, the act of eating (or not eating) becomes an outward behavior connected to what’s motivating it underneath. Eating disorder support can be helpful when recognizing how to productively provide it and what to avoid doing or saying that may be counterproductive. Let’s look at some do’s and don’ts of eating disorder support and explain why mental health treatment becomes essential. 

Eating disorder support can be effective when first understanding a person’s relationship with food. For example, an underlying mental health condition may contribute to anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or other eating disorders. Showing compassion and care and reminding a loved one that eating disorders are treatable is helpful. Supporting a person by guiding them towards professional treatment without insisting is a respectful approach. 

Identifying Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a psychological condition that appear in the form of maladaptive eating habits. In the early stages, a person might obsess about their weight, body shape, or food. Men tend to report eating disorders at a lower rate and avoid seeking treatment for them. 

Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, pica, rumination disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. Anorexia affects women more than men, and anorexic people can be dangerously underweight and still see themselves as overweight. Bulimia appears as eating unusually large amounts of food and then purging through forced vomiting, using laxatives, diuretics, or enemas, and compensatory behaviors such as excessive exercise to counter calories consumed. Less common eating disorders include purging disorder and night eating syndrome.

Behavior clues about an eating disorder may be recognizable when someone loses a great deal of weight, avoids eating in public, or avoids mealtime in general. Other signs of an eating disorder include:

  • An intense fear of gaining weight.
  • Binge eating and purging.
  • Cooking meals for other people without eating. 

Physical signs of an eating disorder may be feeling cold, sleep issues, and menstrual irregularities. A person with an eating disorder may have dry skin, dry and thin nails, and thinning hair. They may complain about stomach cramps, show signs of dizziness, or have wounds that are slow to heal. 

What Not to Do When Supporting Someone with an Eating Disorder

1. Don’t be critical of their appearance. 

Commenting critically on a person’s weight or appearance can make them feel self-conscious. Insults or comparisons to what they used to look like can be hurtful. 

2. Don’t show frustration or anger over a person’s eating habits. 

Strong, negative reactions around food topics and mealtimes doesn’t inspire anyone to want to eat. Instead, it’s more likely that a person with an eating disorder will avoid a person who behaves this way around them. 

3. Don’t attempt to make an argument about how their eating disorder is affecting others. 

Your loved one probably already knows how their behavior is affecting friends and family members. However, an attempt to guilt someone into changing their ways is rarely effective. 

4. Don’t give ultimatums to someone with an eating disorder.

Setting conditions on your time, attention, and support may be perceived as threats and not actual care. This kind of demand seldom works to motivate a person with an eating disorder to comply with your expectations in a sustained way.

How to Properly Give Eating Disorder Support

1. Do encourage a person with an eating disorder to talk candidly about it. 

This encouragement can come indirectly by listening first and not offering advice immediately. Giving them a safe space to talk about it can allow for recurring conversations that eventually steer them towards getting help. 

2. Do show compassion and care. 

Effective eating disorder support comes from not judging a person for having this issue. The person you’re interacting with is dealing with intense emotions already over their unhealthy eating habits. Kindness through words and deeds can help remind them that you have their best interests in mind. 

3. Do emphasize that eating disorders, like any mental health disorder, are treatable. 

Hope and encouragement can come in the form of this truth. Eating disorders can be addressed and reversed through treatment. For example, you may want to find a success story about someone whose eating disorder was successfully treated. 

4. Do invite them to consider professional help for an eating disorder. 

Your loved one can benefit from non-judgmental help with a process that may feel challenging or embarrassing. You can reassure them that professional help is about finding sustainable solutions. You can even offer to accompany them to a first appointment or encourage them to follow through with treatment recommendations.

Importance of Mental Health Treatment for Eating Disorders

Unmet mental health needs can lead to a variety of disorders, including substance use disorders. For those with eating disorders, obsession with weight and appearance may be tied to undiagnosed or untreated depression, anxiety, or trauma. Control of eating habits may be a person’s way of managing the overwhelming symptoms associated with their mental health. 

Treatment at Origins Counseling for eating disorders involves examining a person’s clinical history and developing a personalized plan for long-term recovery. In treatment, eating disorder support comes in the form of individual and group therapy. Evidence-based therapies at Origins Counseling include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and trauma therapies. 

Origins Counseling is a program in Dallas, Texas, made available by a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We provide a comprehensive diagnostic assessment and evaluation, as well as renowned clinical care for addiction. We have the compassion and professional expertise needed to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today: 561.841.1264.

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