Educate Yourself First, Talk to Your Friend Second

If you suspect a friend or loved one has an eating disorder you should first educate yourself about the disorder. You want to familiarize yourself with the signs of an eating disorder, gain a better understanding of why people develop eating disorders and treatment options available. After you have done your research, then talk to your friend or loved one about your suspicions and concerns. Let them know you care about them and what they are going through. You will also want to have a small list of resources and telephone numbers available, such as hospitals, clinics, or counselors that offer specialized care for individuals with eating disorders.

Counterbalance the Media with Compassion

Approaching a friend or loved one you suspect may have an eating disorder can be a very difficult task, as it requires compassion and sensitivity. Although we are seeing shifts in media representation and the fashion world to embrace fuller body types, there is still a push to lose weight. This is seen when popular clothing lines do not include sizes for larger people, constant advertisement for diet pills, detox treatments, weight loss cleanses, etc. Those that have concerns about a loved one should remain cognizant this is a disorder, which is fueled by control. Keep in mind that the disorder is a coping mechanism and that denial is a psychological defense.

10 Steps to Take If You Suspect Your Friend Has an Eating Disorder

  1. Educate yourself about eating disorders
  2. Know the warning signs
  3. Develop an understanding of who is at risk of developing an eating disorder.
  4. Explain to your loved one the reasons you have concerns about their eating habits.
  5. Once you have decided to talk to them about your suspicions, let them know you are concerned and remind them that you love them.
  6. Do not approach the topic of eating disorders with your loved one while angry.
  7. Do not approach them about your concerns of an eating disorder during mealtime.
  8. Identify local mental health professionals, clinics, and hospitals that specialize in eating disorders and create a small resource list.
  9. Provide ongoing support and compassion for your loved one before and throughout the process of receiving treatment.
  10. Encourage your loved one to join a support group once mental health/medical treatment is addressed.

Additionally, when talking to someone with an eating disorder, be mindful of minimizing the disorder. You do not want to tell them they “look awful,” “are too skinny,” “I wish I had an eating disorder so I can lose weight,” and so on.

The Role of Treatment

Treating an eating disorder (like many other disorders) varies from person to person. Talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are effective for some, while others may need medications, such as antidepressants, antipsychotics or mood stabilizers. Some people may even require a combination of treatment methods to achieve full recovery.

*Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford is a Forensic Psychologist specializing in familial dysfunction and traumatic experience. She is also a marriage, couples, and family therapist who owns and operates a practice out of Raleigh, NC.