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How to Support Someone with Anorexia, Bulimia or Binge Eating

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 1 in 10 women, men and adolescents in the U.S. will experience an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder at some point during their lifetime. The prevalence of eating disorders means there’s a good chance that someone you know may struggle with an eating disorder. Whether your friend or family member is in treatment, has completed treatment, or is in need of treatment but has not yet accepted help, there are many ways that you can offer encouragement and support for their anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Although there is no easy fix for conditions as complex as eating disorders, your care and concern can go a long way in helping someone with bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder. By being a good listener, educating yourself about eating disorders and approaching him or her with compassion, you may be able to help your loved one avoid the most severe eating disorder complications and make decisions that lead to restored health and happiness.

Educate Yourself About Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a very misunderstood disease. Some people mistakenly think that eating disorders are a choice and people can simply decide to change their behavior. In reality, “letting go” of an eating disorder is very challenging. How to Support Someone with Anorexia In the case of anorexia, food and eating are associated with intense fear and anxiety. Body image distortions can be severe. People with eating disorders are also often dealing with co-occurring disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders or trauma disorders, which can make it more difficult for them to recognize they have a problem and to take the necessary steps to get treatment. To support someone with anorexia, it’s important to educate yourself about the disorder. There are many reputable websites such as the National Eating Disorders Association and National Institute of Mental Health that can help dispel eating disorder myths and provide clarity about what a person with this disease is going through.

Don’t Be Offended

It’s very common for people with eating disorders to hide their purging, binging, self-starvation, excessive exercise or abuse of laxatives. When confronted about worrisome signs and symptoms of eating disorders, they are likely to try to minimize the problem or outright lie about their behavior. This may continue even after it has become obvious to everyone else that something is wrong. Some individuals with eating disorders also don’t recognize their weight loss is dangerous. To support someone with bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder, try not to take their behaviors personally. It can be helpful to think of it as the eating disorder talking, not the person you love. Just let them know that you care and you’re ready to listen when they’re ready to talk.

Spend Time Together

Another hallmark of an eating disorder is pulling away from family and friends, and losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable. Isolation can be a warning sign of an eating disorder, and a trigger for a relapse of a previous eating disorder. If you want to support someone with an eating disorder, try to encourage the person to engage in social activities instead of withdrawing. Your friend or family member may not make it easy to spend time with them, but don’t give up. It’s important to keep calling, emailing, texting and suggesting things you can do together. Depending on how your loved one reacts to your support, you may need to be creative. For instance, your friend or family member may not be comfortable going to lunch or doing something that is centered on food. Some activities not centered around food could be to take them to a movie, a park, the mall, or even a concert or sporting event. You can also look for free concerts, movies and festivals in community centers or in parks during the summer months.

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Be a Good Listener

It’s also possible that your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, sister, child or best friend may confide in you that they’re struggling with an eating disorder. When you don’t have a problem with food or eating, it can be easy to jump in and start making suggestions about what you think they need to do. But sometimes just being quiet, listening without judgment and not offering too much advice is the best way to be a supportive friend. If someone you care about opens up to you and expresses they’re having trouble with eating, body image and anxiety, let them explain exactly what they’re feeling before offering advice. To support someone with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, resist the urge to try to fix them and instead just let them open up about how they feel. Tell them you’re there for them and that you want to help support. It’s definitely OK to gently suggest that they seek eating disorders treatment from professionals with specialized training and experience in helping people recover from anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. But try to avoid making uninformed comments about their appearance, saying that their thin appearance is appealing, or telling them to “Just eat“.

Ask How You Can Help

As eating disorders progress, individuals become frail, ill and can develop many complications involving all organs and systems of the body. They may develop anemia, severe fatigue, heart rhythm abnormalities and have trouble concentrating. People with eating disorders also commonly struggle with co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, self-harm, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders and trauma disorders. Some mental illnesses may make it more difficult for them to first recognize that they need help and then to take the necessary steps required to get treatment. If you want to support a friend or family member with an eating disorder, you can offer to help much in the same way that you would if your loved one was battling another type of disease. You can also suggest to have their kids over, run an errand, or drive them to a doctor’s appointment if they want company or are having trouble finding transportation. If you can, try to research eating disorders treatment centers. Provide phone numbers and email contact information. Look for established treatment centers with strong reputations that have a high level of medical expertise (i.e. psychiatrists, licensed therapists and dietitians) to treat this complex disease. If you’re close enough to the individual with the eating disorder, find out if the treatment center takes their insurance. And if you are comfortable, offer to take them to the consultation.

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Be Aware of Eating Disorder Relapse Signs

Relapse is very common in people who have struggled with an eating disorder. Major life changes such as starting a new school, going to college, divorce, starting a new job or the death of a loved one can all be triggers for relapse. If your friend is going through a tough time or facing a significant life transition, keep an eye out for a return of eating disorders behaviors. If you’re worried, approach them in a caring way and speak up about your concerns.

How to Support Someone with an Eating Disorder

If someone you care about is struggling with eating or food, we strongly recommend that you consult with eating disorder treatment professionals such as psychiatrists, licensed therapists and dietitians at eating disorder treatment centers. Professionals who work in the eating disorders field have experience in helping people find relief from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and dual disorders, and can advise you on next steps. Individuals with eating disorders may not be ready to admit they have an eating disorder, or they may be resistant to getting help and entering treatment. Eating disorders professionals can give you advice on how to support someone with bulimia or anorexia and handle the situation in the best way possible.

Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders Family Program

When an individual enters treatment for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, families benefit from programs that are designed especially for them. Rosewood’s Family Program provides education about eating disorders and tips on supporting your loved one in recovery. Family group and multi-family group therapy offer a supportive and open forum for sharing experiences and learning how to better communicate with one another. Family and friends are essential for supporting and encouraging someone in recovery from an eating disorder. Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders puts a great deal of focus on facilitating and encouraging family involvement throughout the treatment process.

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