Helping a friend with an eating disorder

How do you help someone with an eating disorder? Use our step-by-step guide and you'll be able to provide the best support for your friend and yourself.

boy in hoody with a slight smile surrounded by two friends

Sometimes just knowing someone wants to help can help.

Step one: Talking to someone about their eating disorder

It can be difficult to know what to say and how to say it when you suspect your friend has an eating disorder. Here are some dos and don’ts to help you get a conversation started.

Do:

  • Set a time to talk: Make sure you will be alone and have plenty of uninterrupted time together.
  • Tell them your concerns: Keep a caring tone and gently use specific examples that have worried you the most.
  • Encourage them to talk: Don’t make it a lecture, listen to your friend’s reactions and accept what they tell you without being judgemental.

Don’t:

  • Force them to talk: If your friend isn’t ready to discuss the problem, that’s OK – if you try to force too much too soon it could push them away. At this stage the most important step is them understanding you are concerned and that you are there to support them.
  • Argue: You may not agree with your friend’s reactions, especially if they deny that they have a problem, but arguing about it will only make the matter worse and run the risk of your trust being lost. Again, repeat the reasons for your concern and make it clear that you are there if they need someone to talk to.

Step two: Looking after yourself

Helping a friend through an eating disorder can be a tough ride for you as well. You may well find that in amongst all the worrying about another person you forget about your own needs.

If your friend is hiding their problems and the burden of carrying the secret is too much for you, you may have to talk to a third party. Trying to play the hero by taking everything on yourself will leave you exhausted and that’s no good to someone who needs your support.

As well as taking some of the strain off you, telling someone else will give extra support to your friend in the long run.

This other person could be a close friend, a family member or someone in the community such as a teacher or school nurse.

Step three: Keep communicating

  • Be patient: Demanding to know everything or offering over-simplified solutions such as “Just start eating and you’ll be fine” are not helpful. Instead offer continued support and remember that it may take a while before your friend opens up.
  • Focus on the good: Remind your friend of their good points and focus on personality rather than appearance. Low self-esteem is a common characteristic of people with eating disorders, so let them know why they are so special. Avoid blaming them or making them feel guilty, and use the word “I” instead of “you”
  • Don’t skirt around the subject: Talk openly about your worries – if you avoid it, so will they
  • Be sympathetic: However, don’t be harsh and blunt. Always stay sympathetic and acknowledging of your friend’s thoughts and worries as this can strengthen communication between you.

Step four: Act by example

  • Be a role model: Continue to eat a balanced diet and try to exercise regularly. Do this openly without making it a big issue. Reinforce the importance of seeking professional support if that’s not happened already, and don’t put pressure on yourself to be a ‘role model’, especially if you’re dealing with your own issues.
  • Swot up: Knowing the facts may help you understand eating disorders more, but remember that you’re not the expert and you’re not expected to be. There are helpful materials out there that are designed to support friends and family, such as on the beat website and Mind website.

Next Steps

  • Beat have loads of information sheets and resources on eating disorders.
  • Men get eating disorders too (MGEDT) run discussion boards for men with eating disorders where you can get peer support.
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 28-Jun-2016