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How to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

How to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Disordered eating is a very difficult illness to battle and treat. It affects not only the person who has the eating disorder but their family, friends, and loved ones as well. If someone you love is struggling with disordered eating, there are many ways you can support them on their journey to recovery.

Pay attention: The first step in supporting a loved one with disordered eating is realizing that there's a problem. If they are exhibiting any of these signs, it may be time to start a conversation and get them help.

Signs of disordered eating include:

  • Avoiding meals and no longer sitting with the family to eat
  • Wearing baggy clothes or trying to hide their body
  • Going to the bathroom immediately after mealtime or snacking
  • Constantly looking in the mirror or avoiding mirrors completely
  • Obsessively counting calories or reading nutrition labels
  • Weighing themselves multiple times a day or week
  • Becoming hyper fixated on food and what they will or won't eat
  • Exhibiting changes in mood or behavior
  • Pulling away or isolating themselves and neglecting their relationships

Take it seriously. Be sure not to invalidate or minimize any of your loved one’s symptoms or feelings as they’re trying to process them. Be open, supportive, and understanding, and don’t disregard them if they are trying to reach out to you. “Don’t invalidate their feelings or their struggles,” said Dr. Lara Addesso, Psychiatrist at Christian Health. “Let them know that you’re there to help them.”

Open a listening ear: “Each individual’s journey with an eating disorder is a little bit different,” said Dr. Addesso. Remember to openly listen to your loved one’s feelings and individual experiences. Resist the urge to compare and contrast their struggle with that of others – keep an open mind and remain supportive.

Do some research: There are plenty of resources available – including books, websites, and peer-reviewed articles – to help you gain a better understanding of disordered eating. Stick to reliable information provided by respected organizations and evidence-based studies and make sure what you’re reading is of good value and reliable.

Be patient: Often it takes quite some time and the right treatment to make progress. Disordered eating illnesses may emerge, quiet down and improve, and then have a resurgence later. Don’t lose faith in your loved one and be willing to stand by and support them when they need it. “Understand that it’s a challenge for the whole family,” said Dr. Addesso. “It affects everyone.” Also, keep in mind that there’s often a lot of anger and frustration that accompanies eating disorders. “It’s not the person who is saying or doing these mean things,” said Dr. Addesso. “It’s really the eating disorder taking over and changing their personality.”

Don’t use negative language regarding food or weight: Sometimes, families will tease one another or make jokes about what they’re eating. However, these seemingly lighthearted or innocent comments can have a significant effect on someone struggling with an eating disorder. “Be mindful about what you’re about to say,” said Dr. Addesso. “Don’t make any comments about weight or body shape and use positive words when discussing food – don’t say things like ‘junk food’ or ‘bad food.’” Remember to never make negative comments about your body or diet, either. “We don’t realize how much our words and actions affect others,” said Dr. Addesso.

Talk to them privately: If you suspect your loved one may be struggling with disordered eating, try talking to them one-on-one at first rather than in front of others. Eating disorders are often associated with feelings of guilt and shame, and being confronted in front of a group is likely to make your loved one feel uncomfortable or attacked. If you are concerned, be sure to give them privacy during your initial conversation and remember not to be judgmental.

Encourage them to seek mental health support: Realize sometimes you might not be enough to help your loved one heal. They may need to see a professional to work through their struggles. Aside from one-on-one counseling, those with eating disorders often benefit from family therapy. When attending family therapy sessions, remember to be open-minded, present and empathetic. Sometimes people who are struggling are resistant to seeking treatment, so attending therapy as a family may be a good way to make them feel less alone or intimidated.

Support your own mental wellness: You can’t be a healthy support system for your loved one without taking care of yourself first. Eating disorders take a toll on everyone involved, so it’s important to remember to nurture your own mental wellness, too. You may want to seek treatment on your own – whether it be one-on-one counseling, support groups for loved ones of someone with an eating disorder, or just talking to your family and friends. Even prayer or meditation can be helpful when you feel especially stressed, anxious, or depressed. Remember to take time for self-care and keep an optimistic attitude. “Keep being hopeful, do the best you can, and stay positive,” said Dr. Addesso.

Get Support at LiveWell Counseling

If your loved one is struggling with disordered eating, we can help. LiveWell Counseling offers one-on-one counseling, medication management, and group and family therapy in a warm a

nd nonjudgmental environment. Our expert psychiatrists and counselors provide gentle, compassionate care for a variety of mental health issues, including disordered eating. To learn more, please visit or call (201) 848-5800.