What do you do to help a loved one with an eating disorder? Being the bystander in this type of situation, you may feel a sense of helplessness as you watch them go through this difficult process. It is important to be educated about eating disorders before approaching a friend or family member as they may be easily triggered by specific words or phrases, and are most likely experiencing anxiety, guilt, or denial1. Educating yourself can help you build confidence to discuss the topic sooner and initiate treatment earlier as well (our Resources page is a great place to start). The longer it takes to diagnose and treat an eating disorder, the more difficult it is for the person’s body to heal and regulate eating behaviours2.
Encouraging treatment is the best way of helping a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder, however, there are multiple things to consider before having this conversation. Firstly, your friend or family member must be ready to talk about the subject before approaching them. If you talk to them for the first time, be prepared for resistance or rejection to discuss the topic. Some individuals need time before opening up, so it is crucial to be patient during this process. For many, it’s a difficult subject to discuss, as there are many emotions that go along with this struggle, such as pain, shame, and guilt1. Keep in mind that by bringing it up, your loved one now knows that you are concerned with their health and that you want to help. If safe to do so, give them a couple of days to process this and start the conversation again.
When they are ready to talk, bring them to a quiet space without distractions. This is a big step for many as individuals with eating disorders commonly struggle with denial1. The fact that they are ready to talk to you demonstrates trust and potential readiness for change, so it is important to be respectful and supportive during this discussion. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, create a non-judgemental space for them to express their feelings and thoughts2.
During the conversation with your loved one, allow them to speak freely without interruptions. It is important to focus the conversation on their current feelings, as opposed to other topics such as weight. Talking about food or weight may trigger negative thoughts about their body image1. Rather than commenting on their appearance or food intake, try to encourage them to reflect on how social norms or the media can create a pressure to look a certain way and how this may create a negative chain reaction of unhealthy thoughts and actions.
The best treatment is person specific, as it depends on symptoms and severity of the type of disorder. The main goal of eating disorder treatment is to create and reinforce a healthy relationship with themselves and food, as well as discovering methods of cope with obstacles patients may face in their lives3. Some common evidence-based treatments for eating disorder recovery may include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), Family Based Therapy (FBT), and nutritional management3. CBT and DBT are two different forms of psychotherapy that focuses on changing an individual’s habits of thinking or feeling, and helping to manage daily challenges independently3. Family based psychotherapy incorporates other families members within the treatment process by allowing them to work together during treatment. Nutritional management is performed by a Registered Dietitian and focuses on developing normal eating behaviours, as well as weight restoration and symptom interruption throughout the treatment process3. It’s important to note that the treatment methods listed above are not typically stand-alone treatments, as it is usually suggested for most individuals to receive a combination of methods during their recovery process.
If you are reading this, you may already suspect that your loved one is battling an eating disorder. Take some time to read up on the topic and then reach out to your loved one and let them know you are worried about them. You can help a loved one with their eating disorder in many ways, including supporting them to seek treatment for recovery.
- Abbate-Daga G, Amianto F, Delsedime N, De-Bacco C, Fassino S. Resistance to treatment in eating disorders: A critical challenge. BMC Psychiatry. 2013; 13:1-18. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-13-294.
- National Eating Disorder Information Centre [Internet]. Toronto, ON: Nedic; 2014 [cited 2018 Apr 28]. Help for Friends & Family; [about 5 screens]. Available from: nedic.ca/node/36.
- National Eating Disorders Collaboration [Internet]. Australia: Government of Australia; [cited 2018 Apr 28]. Treatment Options; [about 5 screens]. Available from: https://www.nedc.com.au/eating-disorders/treatment-and-recovery/treatment/treatment-options/