Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.
By Stephanie Thomas
Some situations in life are just hard. There’s no prettying them up, no filter to cover the pain and no looking without seeing. When you suspect a friend may be struggling with an eating disorder, well, you’ve found yourself in a really tough spot.
It can be tricky to balance the tender nature of talking about the problem with your passion for helping the person. Pair that with the emotions of your friend and the physical destruction happening to her body, and you might be tempted to phone this whole thing in.
Can we encourage you, instead, to pick up the phone? Of course, you’ll want to learn a little more about eating disorders first, determine the best time and place to talk, and make a plan for what you’ll say and how you’ll be there for her when she needs you. Don’t worry! We’ll walk you through the process below.
Keep a Keen Eye: How to Spot the Signs and Symptoms of an Eating Disorder
Take care to parse out your friend or loved one’s actions to be sure they struggle with an eating disorder. While many men and women seem to obsessively watch their weight, you’ll find unique behaviors in someone dealing with anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating, such as:
- In general: resistance to discussions about food, body image or weight; isolation from friends and family; abnormal changes in mood;1 noticeable, perhaps concerning, changes in weight; voices fear of being or becoming fat;2 wears loose clothing;3 and a family history of eating disorders4
- Anorexia: overly concerned with appearance; skipping meals; avoiding certain categories of food entirely; consumed with counting calories or weighing food portions; using prescription or illegal drugs to aid in weight loss;2 and loss of menstruation3
- Bulimia: goes to the bathroom immediately after eating, often running the shower to cover the sounds of vomiting; compulsive use of breath-fresheners; unnecessarily takes laxatives or uses enemas; eating followed by extreme exercise or fasting; and bodily discomfort due to frequent purging2
- Binge-Eating: unusual amounts of food often go missing; hidden food or evidences of eating are found regularly; eats more in private than in public;2 and is unable to control herself around food3
In addition to observing behavior, it’s also a good idea to try and discover the thoughts behind what you see. Lizzie Janniello, who has dealt with anorexia herself, suggests applying this extra layer of detection as she remembers her own desire to hide her problems with food.1
Instead of asking a friend what she ate today, you might ask her about her thoughts on food, weight and her looks. Of course, just like with the outward signs of an eating disorder, these probing questions only allow you a glimpse at what may be going on — if you’re able to see any truth at all. So you must use discernment and wisdom.
Still, if you get another gut-check after reading the symptoms above or following a casual food-and-body conversation, you should feel confident to speak up.
Choose Wisely: Why, When and Where to Begin the Conversation
Despite solid knowledge and intuition about your friend’s situation, your nerves might get in the way. Hopefully a better understanding of the consequences of eating disorders will motivate you to move forward.
Eating disorders cause more deaths than any other mental illness.5 Anorexia is not a phase young women will outgrow nor is binge-eating a laughable talent bestowed upon the guy at your football party. Your friend or loved one who struggles in their relationship with food could die as a result.
And if they don’t die, they might encounter any number of “irreversible and even life-threatening health problems, such as heart disease, bone loss, stunted growth, infertility and kidney damage.”2 Research shows early intervention means a greater chance of recovery.6 Please don’t waste any time in offering help.
Plan the place and time carefully. The best option will be quiet, private and without opportunity for interruption. You might select an atmosphere that sets your friend at ease and allows her to express her emotions fully, if she chooses.
Check Your Judgment at the Door: What You Should NOT Say
Eating disorders may seem to be all about outward appearances, but they’re actually a result of what’s going on inside. People who deal with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating hope to gain some measure of control over their feelings of sadness, loneliness or self-hate.2
And the brain itself plays a role too. Researchers found that people with eating disorders show an abnormal response to dopamine — the chemical that tells our brain when something feels good — causing some patients to experience extra doses of dopamine when they eat and others to actually endure anxiety when they eat.4
With these facts in mind, do not say:2
- You look… Make no mention of your friend’s body, positive or otherwise. Leave these discussions to the professionals.
- All you need to do is… With statements like these, you belittle a serious issue.
- Your behavior makes me feel… Your friend’s eating disorder is not a personal attack against you. Be sure it doesn’t sound like you see her actions this way.
Enter with Compassion: What You SHOULD Say
By now, you realize that, when you sit down to talk with your friend or loved one, it may literally be a life-or-death conversation. And you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t care about them deeply. Remember compassion as you say things like:2
- I’m worried about you… Tell the truth about what you see, and do so with love.
- I could be wrong, but… Allow your friend dignity while standing firm on your request. Ask that, if nothing else, she schedule a visit with her doctor for a routine checkup.
- I’m here because I want to help… Remove any concern your friend may have about the future of your relationship or your view of her struggle. Assure her that your only desire is to help.
Walk Out Together: How to Be a Good Friend Through Recovery
As your friend comes to terms with her struggle, you can help by looking up local treatment centers that specialize in eating disorders (Utah residents are invited to contact The Center for Change at 888-224-8250).
You can also model healthy habits. Eat for energy, and exercise for strength, letting any remarks about food reflect your intentions.
Above all, do your best to maintain balance. Give space when needed, but don’t enable. Encourage change, but don’t expect to be the hero of her story.6 Be her sidekick. After all, that’s exactly what she needs.
1 Janniello, Lizzie. “12 Tips for Talking With Someone Who Has an Eating Disorder.” Project Heal, February 10, 2017.
2 Smith, Melinda, et al. “Helping Someone With an Eating Disorder.” HelpGuide.org, April 2017.
3 “Signs of an Eating Disorder.” WebMD, August 17, 2017i.
4 Weir, Kristen. “New Insights on Eating Disorders.” American Psychological Association, April 2016.
5 “Eating Disorder Statistics.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Accessed October 14, 2017.
6 Haupt, Angela. “How to Talk to a Friend About an Eating Disorder.” S. News & World Report, February 28, 2014.