Helping a friend with an eating disorder does not have to be intimidating. Learn about eating disorders and symptoms while encouraging treatment.

Learning that a friend has an eating disorder can be a confusing and emotional moment. Of course, you want to help, but you’re also worried your attempts could make the disorder or symptoms worse.

By following these tips, you can help your loved one improve toward a healthier lifestyle and get the treatment they need. Here’s how to help someone with an eating disorder.

Understanding Eating Disorders

One of the first steps you can take toward helping someone with an eating disorder is to learn about the specific disorder. If you have never had an eating disorder yourself, the information may be surprising or confusing, so be sure to get your information from reliable sources.

Eating disorders are a group of mental health disorders in which people experience disturbances in their eating and have problematic thoughts and feelings surrounding food, weight and physical appearance. There are several eating disorders including:

  • Anorexia nervosa – Anorexia is a condition focused on very restrictive eating that frequently leads to extreme weight loss.
  • Bulimia nervosa – Bulimia is marked by binges of excessive overeating followed by unhealthy behaviors including urging to compensate for the intake.
  • Binge eating disorder (BED) – Binge eating is when people consume large amounts of food at a time without taking extreme measures to prevent weight gain.

Anorexia, bulimia and BED are the most common forms of eating disorders, but your loved one could feel distressed from a variety of unhealthy eating habits like purging disorder or night eating syndrome. The National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Association are good resources for learning more about eating disorders.

Recognizing the Signs of an Eating Disorder

You cannot always recognize the signs of an eating disorder based on a person’s weight. People with bulimia may have an average weight while people with binge eating disorder may gain weight. Additionally, people with anorexia may not be losing weight despite their lack of food intake.

Additional signs to help you recognize an eating disorder include:

  • Very low self-esteem
  • Having a view of body or weight that does not match with reality
  • An intense fear of gaining weight or eating food
  • Lying and making excuses about eating or the lack of eating
  • Finding empty bottles, cans, wrappers and containers of food that were hidden
  • Someone always leaving the room or using the bathroom immediately after eating
  • Exercising excessively
  • Using laxatives or other pills to lose weight

Eating disorders can dominate a person’s life. If your friend seems consumed with ideas of food, weight and how they look, they could have an eating disorder. However, when you recognize the symptoms, you are in a better position to help them with an eating disorder.

Finding Help for Someone with an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are dangerous mental health conditions. They deserve professional care.

You can help your friend access care by addressing your concerns in a loving and supportive way. Let them know what your concerns are without becoming angry or judgmental.

You can offer to schedule an appointment with their primary care doctor or a mental health professional to begin the process of evaluating and treating the eating disorder. You could also volunteer to go along to the appointments to provide additional support.

If an eating disorder co-occurs with addiction, contact The Recovery Village today. The professionals at The Recovery Village treat addiction along with co-occurring disorders, like eating disorders. With individualized treatment programs, patients get the treatment that will work best for them.

a man with a beard wearing glasses and a hoodie.
Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
a man smiling in front of a brick wall.
Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more

American Psychiatric Association. “What are Eating Disorders?” January 2017. Accessed on March 10, 2019.

National Institute of Mental Health. “Eating Disorders.” February 2016. Accessed on March 10, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.