How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder? – 10 Best Ways

Have you ever heard of something called an eating disorder? It is one of the many disorders in which a person displays disinterest and disturbance in eating behaviors due to troubled emotions and thought processes.

Over the past few years, thanks to the unrealistic standards of body image portrayed in the media, eating disorders – disturbances in eating behavior that involves maladaptive and unhealthy efforts to control body weight – have become increasingly common.

What is all the more troublesome is that it is observed that these disorders have now started to manifest themselves in children as young of an age as eight years. While the causes of eating disorders can be varied, the changing ideals of feminine beauty are partially responsible.

Consider this: In the 1900s, well-rounded female figures such as Marilyn Monroe were considered the most attractive body type.

After that, however, a rising trend of being thin started to become glorified in recent years, with supermodels and actresses being the textbook example of the same.

Thus, it is no surprise that research findings also support that such disorders are more prevalent in young women. Men, in comparison, generally do not prefer extremely thin figures due to their conversely different body ideals.

Types of Eating Disorders

Types of Eating Disorders

Commonly known are three eating disorders: Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating. Let’s understand them better:

Anorexia Nervosa

The term means “lack of appetite induced by nervousness.” However, this definition can be misguiding, as a lack of appetite is neither the core difficulty nor necessarily even true.

Anorexia Nervosa, Causes, Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment.

This disorder is characterized by an intense and excessive fear of weight gain coupled with a refusal to maintain normal body weight.

Such people often have a distorted perception of their bodies which leads them to believe they are heavier than they are. As such, they starve themselves to the point where they almost become anorexic.

Bulimia Nervosa

In this disorder, individuals engage in recurrent episodes of binge eating – eating huge amounts of food in a short period – followed by compensatory behaviors designed to prevent weight gain.

Bulimia nervosa - causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment & pathology

This can involve self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, fasting, or excessive exercising that is destructive to health.

Binge Eating Disorder

So tasty. Weak-willed overweight woman eating a sandwich and her friend stopping her
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It involves uncontrolled binge eating but differs from bulimia primarily in that such individuals do not purge or use other inappropriate methods for losing weight.

National Eating Disorders Association

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) was founded in 1987 and is one of the largest eating disorder-focused NGOs that seeks to build awareness and prevent eating disorders.

It is also helpful in providing resources for treatment, information to understand eating disorders and support to families and individuals affected by the same.

In February, they organize the “National Eating Disorders Week,” and host fundraising walks at various times of the year to raise awareness about eating disorders and the consequent need for intervention.

They also have a website and toll-free helpline, available all weekdays from 9 am-5 pm at (800) 931-2237.

NEDA’s Feeding Hope Fund for Clinical Research also gathers cash under stringent restrictions solely to award grants to competent clinical researchers. The main objective of these research funds is the transmission of cutting-edge treatment, prevention, and training.

How to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder?

1. Encourage Them to Seek Treatment

If the weight loss due to anorexia is severe (40% or more below expected weight), medical complications such as dehydration, severe chemical imbalances, and possibly organ damage may result.

In such a case, it is important to seek professional help, and hospitalization should occur before reaching this dangerous point.

Counseling is also provided with hospital treatment for 2-4 months. Psychological treatment may include interpersonal, cognitive behavioral, group, or family-based therapy.

However, only 40-60% of individuals who receive treatment recover fully. The estimated mortality rate for anorexia is the highest among all eating disorders and much higher than any other psychological disorder.

By Alex Green/ Pexels Copyright 2022

Treatment of bulimia also involves the same measures described above. In addition, the use of antidepressant medications can be helpful. The prognosis for recovery of the individual with bulimia is much better than that of anorexia1.

Treatment of binge eating may use some of the same strategies used for anorexia and bulimia2, with the added issue of weight loss management for those with obesity.

However, it is also possible to seek help for the eating disorder in an outpatient setting,i.e., if the problem is not as severe, the patient need not be hospitalized and can receive help as and when needed.

2. Family Therapy for Eating Disorder

As mentioned before, seeking professional help is one of the most important things to ensure the best chance of recovery for your loved one.

For someone with an eating disorder, especially anorexia, family therapy – wherein family member(s) are actively involved in behavior modification efforts- is the treatment of choice.

Troubled teen girl on therapy session with her family and psychiatrist
Source: Depositphotos

The best-studied approach is the Maudsley model – which neither blames the parents nor the person with the disorder. This type of program runs for 6-12 months with 10-20 sessions.

The eating disorder treatment has three phases. In the ‘refeeding phase,’ the therapist works with the parents and supports their efforts to help their child to eat healthily.

During this time, the therapist takes note of family meals and guides the parents to act as functioning support. After the patient gains weight, the ‘negotiations for a new pattern of relationships phase’ begins, and family problems are addressed.

Later, in the ‘termination 3phase’ of the eating disorder treatment, the focus is on developing more healthy relationships between the parents and the patient.

3. Try to Build Their Self-Esteem To Cure Eating Disorder

Any eating disorder can severely impact one’s mental health, self-efficacy, and esteem. Thus, the opinion a person with an eating disorder holds about themself plays a vital role in their path to recovery.

Happy Reconciliation. Unrecognizable Couple Holding Hands Sitting On Couch During Family Therapy Session Indoor. Cropped, Selective Focus
Source: Depositphotos

Until the person is not confident and satisfied with their skin and with how they look, they will feel unable to let go of the self-destructive eating behaviors. Not only is low self-esteem detrimental to the treatment process, but in many cases, it is also a prerequisite for developing the eating disorder.

To tackle this issue, it is important to help your loved one get rid of the feelings of self-loathing and replace them with those of self-compassion instead so that when the person looks at themself, they are fully able to embrace their body image and are not burdened by negative feelings of one’s worth based solely on appearances.

4. Encourage Them to Talk Openly

The most efficient way to help with a loved one’s eating disorder is to encourage them to talk about their feelings and make them feel heard and understood.

If a person denies seeking professional help, they may be either in denial of their disorder or are not yet ready to confront their difficult emotions related to the same.

People interacting and talking openly
Source: Depositphotos

In such a case, taking baby steps and simply confiding in the people they feel the closest to can go a long way in lessening the burden they are carrying with them and also make them feel cared for.

\When we do talk to the person, we should also keep in mind not to provide advice or give overly simplistic solutions that downplay the gravity of their eating problems, such as “just stop eating” or “just eat more.”

However, ensuring one holds their ground while offering support is important. For instance, you should not make promises not to tell other people or be influenced if the person says it won’t happen again because depending on how dire the situation is, you might have to break the promise to ensure their well-being.

5. Show Your Loved One That You Understand About Their Eating Disorder

It is possible that due to their disorder and the consequent mental health problems that come alongside it, the person might feel lost or bewildered. Thus, providing them with unconditional love and regard is a must, regardless of the physical or psychological disorder a loved one has.

There can be no recovery without knowing that people around you are concerned about and feel worried for you and want you to be the best version of yourself. Thus, friends and family play a key role in the life of someone with an eating disorder.

To show the person that you empathize with them, it is necessary to first and foremost understand your loved one’s symptoms by observing and researching their meal patterns, eating and exercise behaviors, along with the possible triggers.

We must also remember that eating problems are a major hassle in the person’s life, and they do not engage in such behaviors for attention-seeking purposes. Not eating, eating too much or barfing is not something that would please most people.

They feel guilty after engaging in such behaviors, causing them great emotional pain. Thus, one should avoid commenting about their eating patterns or bodily appearance and try to talk to them about possible ways to be more helpful.

6. Encourage Them to Cope in Healthier Ways

Eating disorders are called so because they are associated with dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as barfing or starving oneself to ensure that one feels more relieved.

The disorder and associated eating problems are also generally a direct stress response to some trigger which is why using a more adaptive coping mechanism is important.

Here are a few of the many coping strategies that someone with an eating disorder can use:

  • Find a hobby or passion. Whenever you feel triggered, engage in such activities to release the stress hormones without affecting your well-being.
  • Make a list of positive affirmations. Please post it in your bedroom and start the day with it.
  • Start journaling. Penning down your feelings can give clarity of thought
  • Write down what you are grateful for each day. This helps to focus on the more positive things in life.
  • Engage in yoga4, take a warm bath, watch a movie, hang out with a friend, or do anything else that makes you feel relaxed.

Lastly, if you ever feel like you need to seek support but are unsure how to, call any friend or family member you trust and talk to them about it. You may even ask them to accompany you on your first appointment.

7. Volunteer to Go Food Shopping With Them

Food shopping
By Jack Sparrow/ Pexels Copyright 2022

It is not easy for someone with an eating disorder to buy food- they may buy too much, too little, or maybe nothing at all. Thus, to ensure that your loved one eats well-balanced meals, it is important to have the right amount and quality of food at home – something we can help with.

For instance, a binge eater would find it difficult to exercise restraint. In such a scenario, we would need to be present at the time of shopping and also give them reminders about the food they pick – by telling them that you are only doing so because you are concerned and want to help in the best way possible.

Initially, it is more efficient to offer healthier substitutes, keeping in mind not holding back on the food they like altogether to account for balanced meals.

8. Connect With a Registered Charity To Help People With Eating Disorder

Try to connect with a registered charity in your locality if you are worried about how to help your loved one with their eating disorder. E.g., NEDA, Beat (based in the UK), and Project Heal.

eco, bio, nature, love, harmony concept - woman cupped hands showing paper man family
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Such organizations seek to ensure a better quality of life and mental health for those who suffer from eating problems by providing help in the form of emergency helplines, therapy resources, or support groups and at the same time campaigning and collaborating with other NGOs to raise awareness about the issue in question.

9. Make a List of Realistic Goals With Them

An efficient way to assist a loved one with their eating disorder is to develop a framework or blueprint of realistically achievable goals in collaboration with them. Remind them that they deserve support, and as a friend/parent, you are worried about them and thus want to lend a helping hand in caring for their own needs.

To start with, you can observe their exercise habits and whether they eat good meals a day or not. With the help of your loved one, you can also add what ticks them off, the triggers, and the response mechanisms to the list.

Happy man feeding food to woman cutting vegetables in kitchen
Source: Depositphotos

Once all the information is available, and both you and the person with the eating disorder have gained some clarity on the issue, it becomes possible to draw out solutions.

Try to make a schedule and start by helping to set and achieve small goals. You can even reinforce once a particular desired action has taken place.

For instance, if the problem is that they exercise too much or eat more -and unhealthy – than required in a day, then the first step would be to reduce the number of hours spent exercising or to reduce the food intake – both only by a marginal amount.

This is because if we try to deprive them of something that has since long been a part of their routine, just as a strict diet plan with no balance always backlashes, the schedule plan will also not work out.

Progressively, however, we can keep decreasing the amount of exercise or food intake once the person agrees that they are comfortable with it. Then, your goal list can include “take a rest day” or “eat one healthy meal a day,” respectively.

10. Offer Support During Meals

Eating can be a nightmare for someone with an eating disorder – and to think that they have to eat three times at the very least to ensure their survival!

Eating disorder
By Christian Dorn/ Pixabay Copyright 2022

Due to the eating disorder, the person struggles with questions like “how much or what to eat” before, after, and during the meal and experiences a great deal of anxiety, which is also sometimes accompanied by the urge to purge.

Hospitalization programs usually always offer meal support, but eating with a friend or loved one can be the best solution for people in the outpatient setting.

When eating, be calm and supportive- try to distract them by talking about anything other than food. If they experience an urge to purge, help engage them in a calming activity or anything else they find relaxing.

Well, in these above-mentioned ways, you can help someone with an eating disorder.

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1. What exactly is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder can be defined as the disability to eat or consume food due to psychological stress and traumas.

2. What are the major eating disorders?

The two extreme eating disorders that can be seen in today’s youth are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

3. Why do people suffer from eating disorders?

The exact reason why a person is suffering from eating disorders differs from person to person, but the most common reasons are anxiety, trauma, depression, and other mental health illnesses.

  1. van Eeden, Annelies E., Daphne van Hoeken, and Hans W. Hoek. “Incidence, prevalence and mortality of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.” Current opinion in psychiatry 34.6 (2021): 515. ↩︎
  2. van Eeden, Annelies E., Daphne van Hoeken, and Hans W. Hoek. “Incidence, prevalence and mortality of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.” Current opinion in psychiatry 34.6 (2021): 515. ↩︎
  3. Eaton, Joshua D., and Steven West. “Termination of transcription by RNA polymerase II: BOOM!.” Trends in Genetics 36.9 (2020): 664-675. ↩︎
  4. Caly, Leon, et al. “Isolation and rapid sharing of the 2019 novel coronavirus (SARS‐CoV‐2) from the first patient diagnosed with COVID‐19 in Australia.” Medical Journal of Australia 212.10 (2020): 459-462. ↩︎

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