May 13, 2019

Ways to Support a Loved One With an Eating Disorder

Written by Rachel Eddins

eating disorder support and care heart in sandIf someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important for them to get help as soon as possible. Encouraging medical treatment and therapy is one of the best things you can do when supporting a loved one with an eating disorder. Also, there are additional ways you can assist their journey to recovery every day as well.

Keep in mind that someone going through an eating disorder may be struggling with other issues, too. Everyone is different, and everyone handles the disorder differently. But, being able to support someone you love through the process can make a big difference in their recovery.

Parents must learn the warning signs and develop ways to communicate about them. You didn’t choose the path on which your teen has an eating disorder but it is an increasingly common journey for parents.

Let’s take a look at effective ways of supporting a loved one with an eating disorder.

What is an Eating Disorder?

There is a wide range of treatable psychological disorders that involve disordered eating and/or body image issues. They are common, often becoming present by the teenage years, usually impact more females than males. The most prevalent are:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Involves restrictive eating, drastic weight loss, extreme exercise, and forced vomiting — all provoked by a skewed body image. Anorexia involves malnutrition, excessive weight loss, intense fear of gaining weight, and . Perfectionism is another quality common to anorexics even before the eating disorder develops.
    These are the warning signs for anorexia:

    1. Losing 25% of normal body weight without being on a diet.
    2. Distorted thinking about body image and hunger.
    3. Diets constantly even though s/he is thin.
    4. Intense fear of gaining weight.
    5. Menstrual periods have stopped (this is known as amenorrhea).
    6. Preoccupied with food, calories, and eating.
    7. Exercises excessively; fearful of missing exercise routine.
    8. Binges and purges.
    9. Brittle bones and teeth.
    10. Low blood pressure.
    11. Dry, yellowish skin


  • Bulimia Nervosa: Presents with binge eating followed by purging, extreme exercise, fasting, and forced vomiting.

Symptoms include: severe dehydration, inflamed throat, acid reflux, swollen salivary glands, and worn tooth enamel.

The warning signs for bulimia include the following:

  1. Severe dehydration; bloating.
  2. Inflamed throat.
  3. Acid reflux.
  4. Swollen salivary glands or cheek glands.
  5. Worn tooth enamel.
  6. Eating uncontrollably (binges), often in secret.
  7. Purges by vomiting, abusing laxatives or diuretics, or vigorously exercising. May also compensate for eating with strict dieting or fasting.
  8. Frequently visits the bathroom after eating a meal.
  9. Distorted body image; preoccupied with body
  10. Experiences depression or mood swings.
  11. Irregular periods.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: Also presents with binge eating but without the purging. Symptoms include: Eating alone, eating very quickly, and severely overeating — followed by feelings of shame, distress, and guilt.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

This is a complicated question to answer. The factors to consider are:

  • Biological
  • Genetic
  • Behavioral
  • Psychological
  • Social

For each individual, elements of these five factors combine in varied ratios. The only common thread is the result: an eating disorder. What is absolutely important to remember is that your teen or partner is not choosing to be sick. All eating disorders are serious illnesses and must be treated as such.

For example, brain imaging research has shown that the development of anorexia may have a strong biological component. Their self control center may function differently than others, and the wiring connecting food to pleasure in the brain may be different.

A little sugar can be experienced as too much stimulation in the brain of an anorexic. On the other hand, it may hardly register in the brain of someone used to consuming too much sugar on a regular basis.

Some research suggests that for people with anorexia dopamine triggers anxiety. Thus, the feel good temptations of food can produce the opposite reaction for some anorexics.

Steps to Help if Your Teen Or Loved One Has an Eating Disorder

1. Do Your Homework & Educate Yourself About Eating Disorders

If your child were diagnosed with, say, cancer, you’d certainly spend hours on the nearest search engine. Eating disorders deserve the same focus. Learn all you can so can better understand what your teen is going through. In addition, you’ll be validating their pain and showing them how far you’ll go to help.

One of the best things you can do to help a loved one with an eating disorder is to learn more about it.

This is a disorder that has its own language, various facts and stats, and some common symptoms. Become familiar with the condition.

The more you know about eating disorders, the easier it will be for you to understand what they’re dealing with. This knowledge can give you a totally different approach when it comes to how you support them.

Read about eating disorder myths. 

2. Forget About “Blame”

As detailed above, exact causes are difficult to discern. Neither blaming your teen nor blaming yourself is productive once the condition is present. Rather than blame, focus on healing and recovery.

3. Act From a Place of Compassion

This means, in part:

  • Don’t talk until you’ve done the homework described above.
  • Choose healthy discussion over any kind of debate.
  • Don’t accuse, shame, or demand. Ask.
  • Avoid commentary on appearance.
  • Hone and then re-hone your listening skills.

It’s hard for any parent to see their child suffer but maintain perspective. Your teen is the one hurting most and at the most risk. If the process is causing you, as a parent, to struggle, you can seek counseling for yourself as well. In fact, your own counselor may strengthen you as a caregiver and teach you more about empathizing with your teen’s experiences.

4. Resist Slipping Into Denial

Don’t believe that if your teen has an eating disorder, they will “grow out of” this “phase.” Again, use the cancer comparison: don’t rationalize their diagnosis. Accept it, learn more about it, and then commit yourself to be as productive as possible in the process of your child’s healing journey.

5. Don’t Forget Other Areas of Their Life

While encouraging treatment is important, the rest of that person’s life doesn’t stop. Therefore, taking care of everyday tasks is an important way of supporting a loved one with an eating disorder. Offer to do their laundry, walk the dog, mow the yard, etc.

By doing this, you’re not just taking some menial chores out of the way. Rather, you’re giving that person the opportunity to focus all of their energy on getting better.

Sometimes, feeling overwhelmed can be a trigger for people with an eating disorder. The more you can help with, the less likely it is for them to succumb to the disorder.

6. Distract Them During Meals

Mealtime can be difficult for someone dealing with an eating disorder. There are several things you can do to help them through everyday meals.

First, be sure to eat with them. If possible, cook for them! Make healthy, nutritious meals.

Also, avoid making a big deal out of mealtime.

If you can distract the individual with other things while you’re having dinner together, it will help to lower their anxiety, making mealtime more enjoyable and less daunting.

Are you binge eating? Could you have binge eating disorder? Take our quiz to assesses binge eating behaviors and severity, which can indicate an eating disorder.

7. Respect Their Feelings

While you should encourage a loved one with an eating disorder to seek out treatment, it’s important not to berate them. In other words, avoid constantly tell them what to do and what they can do to get better.

Instead, focus on listening to their feelings. Ask how you can help them.

An eating disorder usually has many emotional aspects to it. By focusing on those, and not just the physical aspects, you’re more likely to connect and break through with the person who is struggling.

8. Be a Model

Don’t forget to take care of yourself while you’re supporting a loved one with an eating disorder. Model healthy eating habits, exercise, and practice general self-care.

You should also focus on traits that don’t have anything to do with physical appearances, like a sense of humor or a kind personality.

When the person you care about sees your healthy lifestyle, they can eventually be more comfortable adopting one of their own.

9. Focus Conversation Around Healthy Eating and Not Weight

Parents may mean well, but a recent study found that parents discussion of weight vs. healthy eating was more likely to lead to disordered eating behavior in adolescents.

Given that we live in a society where weight stigma is high, it makes sense that emphasis on weight is more likely to induce negative thoughts and feelings, which can ultimately lead to disordered eating. Healthy eating is not really about weight. It’s about feeling good, nurturing your whole body, and treating your body with lovingkindness.

When we focus on weight, the emphasis is on fear or what is wrong. This disconnects us from our bodies and sets the stage for feelings of shame and inadequacy.

Show Them Your Support with Help From an Eating Disorder Specialist

It’s difficult to see someone you love going through something so dangerous. But with time, treatment, and support, it’s not impossible for someone to recover from an eating disorder.

Supporting a loved one with an eating disorder and showing just how much you care is vital. That you’re willing to be there for them every step of the way can make a big difference in their recovery. Eddins Counseling Group in Houston, TX has several counselors that specialize in treating, coping, and getting to the root of eating disorders. Give us a call today at 832-559-2622 or book an appointment online.

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