If you have a friend with an eating disorder, it can be difficult to know how to help, what to say, and what not to say. Every person is different so there’s not one “right” approach — but there are some basic “do’s and don’ts” to keep in mind.
The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) recommends that you start by educating yourself about eating disorders so you can better understand what your friend is going through. The Alliance Counseling Center put together a comprehensive list of books about eating disorders with brief descriptions of each. You can also read articles online — just make sure they’re from reputable sources and they include input from eating disorder specialists, studies to support the information provided, or both.
It’s crucial to remember two things: no one “chooses” to have an eating disorder (via Walden Behavioral Care) and, regardless of how badly a person wishes to recover, they can’t simply snap their fingers and start eating, stop purging, or stop bingeing (via NEDA).
Make sure your friend knows that you’re there for them. Per the NEDA, avoid using “you” statements, which can put people on the defense. Instead, use “I” statements to express your concern.
It's important to maintain an open, honest dialogue
As part of maintaining an open, honest dialogue, ask your friend what you can do to help. Make sure they know that you’re there to listen during rough patches, but also remember that your friend isn’t defined by their eating disorder. Marjorie Nolan Cohn, owner of MNC Nutrition in Philadelphia, told Health that it can be helpful to make plans that have nothing to do with food or weight. “Shopping for shoes is generally fine, but bathing suits can be sticky. Suggest getting your nails done, but not necessarily going to lunch,” Cohn said.
It’s also important to be mindful of your own comments about food and weight. It’s common for women to talk negatively about their bodies or feel obligated to say they’ll exercise extra the next day if they eat dessert. Rather than lecturing a friend, lead by example when it comes to healthy eating and exercise habits (via Center For Change). If you’re out with a group of friends and the conversation turns to weight, try to change the subject.
Be patient with your friend. Recovery is a long, difficult process and many people experience setbacks. A 2016 study published in Science Daily found that two-thirds of women who have anorexia or bulimia recover within two decades of seeking treatment. It’s common to relapse and this is painful for loved ones to watch, but never give up on your friend — your support is invaluable during their recovery process.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website or contact NEDA’s Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).
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