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5 Ways to Help a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Do you suspect that one of your friends or family members is struggling with an eating disorder, but don’t know how to reach out to them? If so, my heart goes out to them and to you, because I understand that it is a heart wrenching experience. It is very difficult to watch someone you care about go through something so difficult, and it is even more frightening when you don’t know how to help them. Here are 5 suggestions that might help you approach the situation:

Recognize the Problem

It is helpful to recognize the signs of an eating disorder. The following are some of the things you may notice if your loved one is truly struggling with this issue:

Anorexia Nervosa
• Dramatic weight loss
• Wearing baggy, bulky clothes to hide weight loss
• Preoccupation with food, dieting, counting calories, etc.
• Refusing to eat, especially certain foods, such as carbs or fats
• Avoiding mealtimes or eating in front of others
• Preparing elaborate meals for others, but refusing to eat them
• Exercising excessively
• Poor self-image/Making comments about being “fat”
• Stopping menstruating
• Complaining about constipation or stomach pain
• Denying that extreme thinness is a problem

Bulimia Nervosa
• Evidence of binge eating, including disappearance of large amounts of food in a short time, or finding lots of empty food wrappers or containers
• Evidence of purging, including trips to the bathroom after meals, sounds or smells of vomiting, or packages of laxatives or diuretics
• Skipping meals or avoiding eating in front of others, or eating very small portions
• Exercising excessively
• Wearing baggy clothes
• Complaining about being “fat”
• Using gum, mouthwash, or mints excessively
• Constantly dieting
• Scarred knuckles from repeatedly inducing vomiting

Binge Eating Disorder
• Evidence of binge eating, including disappearance of large amounts of food in a short time, or finding lots of empty food wrappers or containers
• Hoarding food, or hiding large quantities of food in strange places
• Wearing baggy clothes
• Skipping meals or avoiding eating in front of others
• Constantly dieting, but rarely losing weight

* Visit WebMD for more information on recognizing eating disorders

Approach with Love

Next, it is important to understand that someone dealing with this type of issue is likely to minimize their situation and/or be very defensive. Begging, pleading, beating around the bush, or becoming angry with them will only heighten these responses. So, whenever you approach your friend about your concerns, you will be most effective if you take a very direct, yet empathetic approach, showing your willingness to listen. For example, you might say things like, “I really love you, and I’m very worried about you. How can I help you get the help you need? Have you spoken with your doctor about what is going on? Do you have anyone, like a therapist, that you can talk to?” Having to admit that they have a problem will make them feel very vulnerable, afraid, and shameful, so they need to feel like the people around them are supportive, loving, non-judgmental, non-accusatory, and “safe” to turn to when they are ready.

Be a Broken Record

Remember, you can expect your loved one to be defensive or act like it’s not a problem-that they have things under control. Don’t give up! Everyone that is concerned about this person should continue to use a “broken record” approach. Continue to let him/her know how much you care about them, how concerned you are, and ask them to get help. If you don’t have success the first time you talk to them, keep trying at the appropriate opportunities until they are willing to allow you to help them. Most people with this kind of problem will eventually become receptive to receiving some sort of help.

Reach Out for Help

If your loved one becomes willing to speak to someone, either you or they can contact a doctor or mental health professional to do an assessment for them. One of these professionals can sit down with your friend and talk to them about what is going on, and decide from there what might be the best coarse of action for them. Should your loved one already have a doctor or therapist, ask him/her if he/she will commit to letting their doctor or therapist know that there are many people worried about them, that people are noticing their health declining, and that they’d like to talk more about the eating disorder.

Get Bolder

If you try all of this, and you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere, creating a type of intervention might be successful. If it gets to that point, contact a mental health professional to walk you through the process, and find out what will be most effective for your friend.

I hope these steps have given you some direction, and help you feel better about what to do for your loved one. I wish you and your dear loved one all the best in getting them on the road to healing. They are lucky to have someone like you in their life that cares about them enough to reach out for help and find out information on their behalf.

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