How To Support A Friend With Disordered Eating

Watching a loved one go through something difficult, like a troubled relationship or mental health struggle, can often leave us feeling helpless. Our intentions are good – we want to help and support them, obviously – but how?

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
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When a friend is suffering from some form of disordered eating, whether it’s a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder, an obsession with only consuming “healthy” foods, overexercising, or some combination of those, they begin to deteriorate right in front of us both physically and mentally. We may have experienced disordered eating in the past ourselves, or we may be completely oblivious as to the warning signs and just how damaging it can be. 

In either instance, there are steps we can take to ensure that those we’re closest to are taken care of, and that we’re doing everything we can to actually help them. Whether it’s determining if and when to offer help or knowing the key signs to look for, here’s everything you need to know about how to support a friend with disordered eating.

Some Signs of Disordered Eating

Disordered eating is obviously a broad term, but it essentially encompasses the more well-known diagnoses, like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, as well as lesser-known conditions like orthorexia and exercise obsession. While we usually think of eating disorders as starving yourself or restricting food intake, eating disorders can also be characterized by over-consuming food, like with binge eating disorder. Whether there’s an over or underconsumption, disordered eating conditions are usually predicated on an unhealthy and unnatural obsession with food and/or exercise, and an inaccurate but controlling perception of your body image and weight.

The National Eating Disorders Association asserts that the earlier a disordered eating condition is recognized, the better the individual’s chance for recovery. This can be difficult to pinpoint when we’re the ones suffering from these conditions, but with a close friend or loved one, there are several distinct signs to look out for which may give insight into their behavior.

First, be aware of any personality changes as they relate to food and body changes. If your friend is suddenly preoccupied with consuming “good” foods and avoiding “bad” foods, working out on a consistent but perhaps intense schedule, and constantly comparing or denigrating their body shape and exaggerating their perceived flaws, an eating disorder may be at work. 

Extremely rigid rule or schedule-following are also clues to a disordered eating condition. If you notice that they can’t seem to go a day without working out – to the point where they spiral or become angry or defensive at the thought – or they focus intently on eating on a schedule, adhering to calories, portions, and similar issues, those can all be cause for concern.

The earlier a disordered eating condition is recognized, the better the individual’s chance for recovery.

Anxiety around social situations is also a small but insightful behavior into your friend’s disordered eating. It’s one thing to be health conscious; it’s another thing to be completely consumed with hesitancy over eating out at restaurants, counting calories in alcohol, or being completely incapable of enjoying a lunch or a meal socially because you’re consumed with how it will affect your body. Fixating obsessively on calories, menus, hiding food, eating alone, or separating portions into minuscule pieces can all point to a larger culprit.

While all of these signs are personality and behavior based, obviously a huge indicator can be your loved one’s physical appearance. If they’re dropping – or gaining – weight at a rapid pace, or sticking to baggy or ill-fitting clothing to hide a thinner and thinner frame, alarm bells should be going off. Additionally, their hair and nails might appear brittle and lackluster, and their dental quality may decrease. They may also complain of feeling tired or cold, and reference changes in their menstrual cycle or bowel movements.

Be especially concerned if you observe your friend pulling away from friends and family. Their flawed perception of their body image, their hesitancy around eating with others, trying to avoid food or consume food in secret as well as committing obsessively to exercising or binging and purging may instill depression, shame, and embarrassment in them, thereby motivating them to isolate themselves from those who love and care for them.

When Is It Time To Intervene?

You may observe some or all of these indicators, or maybe none at all. As much as we wish the people we love most would come and confide in us every time they struggle, eating disorders, as with any illness, often thrive in secrecy and silence.

Even if the signs aren’t glaringly obvious, chances are if you know your friend well, you’re going to start feeling concerned or worried at a certain point. Even if you can’t put your finger on it, that worry is there for a reason. Lean into it.

Don’t wait out of fear or politeness until things go from bad to worse. Early intervention with these conditions is key for finding and accepting help. If you don’t feel comfortable approaching the subject, delegate to another friend or trusted individual who’s up to the task and approach it together. If you’ve noticed something’s off, they probably have too. 

Most importantly, be prepared for every eventuality. While they may receive your concern with gratitude, they may not. Remember, that anger and defensiveness come from a place of insecurity. If they believe they’re doing what’s best for them, they may perceive your intervention as a threat.

How To Offer Support

Don’t feel that you have to solve every issue immediately. Sometimes, all you can do as a friend is listen. Don’t make the issue about yourself, even if you’re emotionally intelligent or have previous experience with ED. Before you do anything else, let them know that you’re there for them no matter what and that you love them. Make sure they know there’s no judgment on your part.

Don’t pressure them into counseling, but let them know that it’s on the table for their benefit. 

Offer whatever you can, whether it’s time, energy, or other resources. Don’t pressure them into finding counseling or treatment, but let them know that it’s on the table for their benefit. Offer to cook meals or eat with them, or work out with them – maybe at a gentle and less intense pace than what they’re used to. Encourage them to take it easy if they’re dieting obsessively or overly conscious of food. Distract them with activities and things to do so they don’t feel the need to spend time alone. If they talk about themselves negatively, correct them kindly but firmly. Also be aware that you can’t do all of this by yourself, and at some point, depending on the severity of their situation, it might be time to refer them to professional help.

What if your support isn’t well received? Trauma can give us tunnel vision. When we’re in it, we might not be entirely sure of what’s really happening until we’re on the other side of that experience. With this in mind, take heart that even if your genuine concern is not appreciated or received well at the time, hopefully the individual will better understand what your intentions were once they’ve begun their journey towards better health.

Closing Thoughts

Seven years ago, I was a high school junior with no period and cracked fingernails who ate one meal a day and wore clothes that were two sizes too big. I was in a deep depression, even though weight-wise I was the thinnest I’d ever been. One individual – my English teacher – took notice and began to invite me to spend lunch in her classroom. 

It wasn’t a full-on intervention, but it was effective. What started out as a gentle offer grew into a routine, and before too long, she was encouraging me to eat lunch with her. Before she did anything else or even approached my ED, she let me know she was there for me.

We wish our loved ones could see themselves the way we do. We won’t be able to fix their illness single-handedly or solve their insecurities, but we can be there for them, through their highs and lows, in the depths of their despair and through their recovery. All of that starts with being willing to offer support.

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