How To Help Someone With An Eating Disorder: Lending Support And Leading Intervention
Updated August 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC Counsel The Mind, LLC
Eating disorders have continued to grow in numbers, both in terms of recognized disorders, and in individuals struggling with the disorder, including body image issues, unhealthy eating patterns, and potentially hazardous exercise regimens. Although stigma and misunderstanding persist when the discussion of eating disorders arises, disordered eating is neither uncommon nor relegated only to young women. Instead, there are numerous types of eating disorders, and they can affect virtually any portion of the population, though teenagers may be more susceptible.
The Face of Eating Disorders
The face of eating disorders was once supermodels and ballet dancers—most of them young women, with clearly emaciated figures and a host of health issues. This picture is no longer the case, as it is now known that both men and women can have eating disorders, or experience disordered eating, regardless of age, profession, or other markers. Recognizing that national eating disorder rates suggest these disorders can affect people of all ages and backgrounds is an important step toward mental health treatment and understanding. It is now understood that eating disorders are mental health issues, rather than simple issues of depressed body image or workplace pressures.
The face of national eating disorders varies tremendously. Not all people with eating disorders will have a gaunt, thin appearance, nor will all people with eating disorders refrain from eating food or use purging as a means of controlling weight.
What is an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders (or disordered eating) are a cluster of mental health conditions that revolve around unhealthy eating habits and patterns. Although the two most commonly referenced eating disorders are Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa, there are other forms of eating disorders, typically grouped under the single umbrella of Eating Disorder-Not Specified. This diagnosis is usually given to individuals who do not exhibit the specific symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa (withholding food from oneself) or Bulimia Nervosa (purging after eating), but still exhibit symptoms of disordered eating, such as:
- Dressing in layers. Attempting to hide weight (either excess weight or inadequate weight) can demonstrate a decline in mental health. People with eating disorders often view their bodies as in need of changing or altering and may feel uncomfortable or even unsafe if their bodies’ shapes are visible through clothes. Dressing in layers may help mitigate this fear.
- A primary fixation on weight or eating. Although focusing on improving one’s health is not inherently bad, individuals with eating disorders will fixate on eating habits, exercise regimens, and weight, devoting inordinate amounts of time toward the pursuit of ideal weight or physique.
- Difficulty eating with others. Individuals with eating disorders might feel shame or embarrassment when eating and may try to avoid eating in the presence of others.
- Developing food-based rituals and routines. Some people with eating disorders will feel better if they feel as though they are in control of their eating habits. This may lead to the development of certain rituals or routines surrounding food, such as not allowing food items to touch, chewing in excess, eating only certain food groups, or rigidly eating at only one time.
- Withdrawal from friends and loved ones. Individuals with eating disorders might also demonstrate declining mental health by pulling away from family and friends, increasing secretive behavior, and seeming uninterested in activities that were previously loved.
- Sleep disturbances. People with eating disorders may also show symptoms of having sleep disturbances. These disturbances run the gamut and vary from a dramatically increased desire and need for sleep or may present as an unusual inability to get to or stay asleep.
- Weight fluctuations. Although weight loss is certainly a symptom of eating disorders, weight gain (or the appearance of weight gain) can also be a symptom. Not getting enough nutrients can cause the body’s systems to break down. Many people with eating disorders will experience an inflammatory response, which can cause bloating and swelling, particularly in the face and extremities.
- Dull, waxy, or pale skin. Skin can show a lot about a person’s health—including mental health—and people with eating disorders might present with skin that is waxy, pale, or dull in appearance.
Although this is certainly not an exhaustive list of the symptoms of eating disorders, it is a good place to start and can provide some insight into the behavior of a loved one with an eating disorder.
Supporting Someone With an Eating Disorder
Although no one can do the work of healing for someone with an eating disorder, people with eating disorders can benefit tremendously from the help, love, and support of the people closest to them. Unfortunately, many loved ones are not certain where to start when trying to help someone with an eating disorder. They are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. Happily, there are some simple guidelines to follow when helping people with eating disorders, including the following:
- Encouraging them to seek help. Family members are not qualified to provide the same aid as mental health professionals, but they can be instrumental in helping people with eating disorders seek help. National eating disorders suggest people often are unaware of the scope of their disordered eating, and it can be a family member’s insistence that they seek help that eventually helps reveal the gravity of their condition.
- Avoiding subjects of weight. Although many a well-meaning aunt or granny will happily chirp, “Have you lost weight? You look so great!” focusing on the weight of an individual with an eating disorder can do a lot of harm. Avoiding fixation on physical appearance is ideal, but if the habit is too ingrained to simply stop, try to switch expressions to “You look so healthy!” This way, the focus is less easily determined by weight, and focuses more on health and longevity, creating a safer space for people with eating disorders.
- Offering to help with meals. People with eating disorders often experience intense shame, frustration, and fear surrounding mealtime. Although it may be too difficult to start eating meals with other people—especially if this was one of the more significant symptoms of an eating disorder. Having someone help cook or prepare meals can ease some of the pressure of creating meals and provide healthy, whole foods without the added pressure of having to cook them.
- Offering to take some pressure off. People with eating disorders might struggle to complete basic activities during treatment and may need some help cleaning, paying bills, or taking care of animals.
- Investigate eating disorders. Knowing as much as possible about eating disorders is one of the best ways to support eating disorders, as it demonstrates concern and a willingness to learn more about the issues they are struggling with and the feelings they are experiencing.
Support need not act as a second source of therapy. People with eating disorders need friends and family during treatment, not people who treat them as though they are damaged or incompetent. National eating disorders and their symptoms do not overtake or overpower an individual’s humanity.
Leading an Intervention
The decision to support someone with an eating disorder comes not as a follow up to a diagnosis, but as a decision to stage an intervention for someone suspected of having an eating disorder. Leading an intervention can be done in one of several ways and is not necessarily a large production or formal interaction. Leading an intervention can be small and can be little more than going to the person suspected of having an eating disorder, and explaining to them why you are concerned, concluding with an offer of help and support. National eating disorder rates suggest that alienation and isolation are commonly caused by eating disorders and making sure to avoid either of these is an essential part of coming to someone with a concern.
Leading an intervention can be done as a larger-scale event, where trusted loved ones are asked to come alongside you, and everyone sits down to explain to the individual why their behavior is a cause for concern, again concluding with an offer of help and support. This type of intervention can be challenging to navigate and arrange, as a large group can make people feel as though they are being ganged upon. Still, it can also be beneficial, as it demonstrates numerous points of view coming to the same conclusion. This type of intervention should not be done lightly. It should be thoroughly researched and planned, with the clear understanding that anyone using attacking, accusing, or otherwise inappropriate language will be asked to leave.
The final type of intervention is a professionally led intervention. This intervention relies upon the expertise and know-how of someone trained in leading interventions, most often a therapist or other mental health worker. This type of intervention is often a good idea for groups that want to make sure they are using language and techniques that will not seem aggressive, pushy, or unkind. Professionally-led interventions are usually interventions involving numerous family members or friends. These types of interventions vary in price and scope, and professionals should be thoroughly vetted before their services are secured.
Getting Help For Others
Supporting someone with an eating disorder does not need to be a grand production. National eating disorder research suggests that support can be extensive, including monetary assistance and life assistance. Still, it can also be small, such as offering a listening ear whenever one is needed. Both types of support are invaluable to individuals seeking mental health help and can be extremely important to people struggling with eating disorders. Whether you are leading an intervention, making meals, or simply standing by, being supportive of an individual with an eating disorder often means, more than anything, offering love, kindness, and patience as they take the first steps in their recovery journey.