Author note: This article discusses disordered eating.
Eating disorders can be a sensitive subject to discuss. Around 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from disordered eating in the United States according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. If you know someone who has an eating disorder or someone you think may have one, it’s important to carefully address the problem and show your support.
1. Know the Myths and Warning Signs
If your friend or family member has not specifically said they have an eating disorder, it can sometimes be tricky to know for sure if they are struggling.
Although the eating disorders are most common in young women, anyone can suffer from an eating disorder. People in all shapes and sizes can also suffer from an eating disorder, not just those who are underweight.
Warning signs to watch out for if you think someone you know may have an eating disorder:
- Concerned with body weight
- Counting calories or food intake
- Heavily focused on nutrition
- Unexplained major weight loss or weight gain
- Obsession with exercising
- Constantly leaving to use the restroom right after meals
- Making excuses to avoid eating
- Often eating alone or in secret
2. Understand the Types of Eating Disorders
Disordered eating is a spectrum, but here are the major types to watch out for.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by the anxiety of gaining weight or a distorted perception of body weight. People who suffer from this disorder often associate their self-worth with being thin.
Bulimia nervosa is a disorder classified by being overly preoccupied with weight and body image. Someone with bulimia may often purge their food through vomiting, laxatives or fasting.
Binge eating disorder is defined as reoccurring episodes of eating a large amount of food, often to the point of discomfort. Someone who suffers from binge eating disorder may binge in secret and feel ashamed, guilt or distressed afterwards.
3. Talk To Your Friend
When approaching your friend or family member about their eating disorder, it’s crucial to use a non-accusatory tone. You want to make them feel that you’re safe to talk to and let them know it’s a judgment-free zone.
In your discussion, could say something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been skipping meals lately, I care about you and I’m worried.” Direct the conversation less about their appearance and more about their emotions. Has their eating disorder affected their mood? You could add, “You seem stressed out during meals, would you want to talk about what’s stressing you out?”
From my personal experience talking to a friend about their eating disorder, I’ve learned it’s extremely important not to make any promises that cannot be kept. For example, that person may ask you to keep their eating disorder a secret. If you end up having to reach out for extra support from other close friends and family members, it will make your friend feel like you’ve betrayed their trust—even if you broke your promise for good intentions. Let them know you’re by their side for support and encourage them to seek help.
There is a possibility that your friend or family member is in denial about their eating disorder. In that situation, I recommend speaking to another close friend or family member who will get professional help.
Disordered eating is a serious life-threatening condition. If you notice warning signs of a close friend or family member, speak out. You could be saving their life.