University of North Texas

Division of Student Affairs

Body Image & Eating Awareness Team

How to Help a Friend or Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Watching someone you love struggle with an eating disorder can be scary and painful.  You might feel helpless, and that everything you say or do is either unheard or makes things worse.  It is important to remember that, when someone has an eating disorder, all you can do is support them.  It’s their decision if they want to change their behaviors, and you can let them know you’ll be by their side if they choose to.

Some helpful strategies are…

  1. Know your limitations.  You can’t force someone to change, though you can offer to be a support if they decide to.  Know that eating disorders require professional treatment, often from a multidisciplinary team.  Don’t feel you need to (or can) enter into this role.  Remain a friend, but don’t be a therapist, nutritionist, etc.
  2. Consult.  If you’re worried about someone, talk with a person who might be able to offer resources or assistance, such as your hall director or RA, a nutritionist, counselor, or other medical professional.
  3. Know your resources.  Know what UNT, Denton, and the surrounding area has to help with eating disorders.  If your loved one decides they want to use resources, offer to go with them or to wait for them if you are able.  Eating disorders are scary, but deciding to get help can feel scary too.
  4. Be a good role model.  Don’t speak negatively about your body or others, or focus on outward appearance.
  5. Don’t take rejection personally.  If you mention concern to your loved one and they don’t seem willing to hear it, don’t take it personally.  Deciding to obtain help for an eating disorder often takes time.  Knowing that you’ve noticed and care about them in itself can be helpful, even if they don’t appear to listen.
  6. Use “I” statements.  Saying “you…” can seem accusatory.  If you decide to mention your loved one’s behaviors at any point, make sure to do it in a way that states what you observe and indicates care (“I noticed that you have been skipping suppers, and this worries me.”).
  7. Listen.  Be non-judgmental, empathetic, and caring.  If your loved one isn’t asking for advice but just for an ear to listen, be it.
  8. Privacy.  If you decide to speak with your loved one about your concerns or your loved one opens up to you about their own concerns, make sure to have conversations in private.  Eating disorders can be hard to talk about and often bring up negative emotions.
  9. Do not comment on looks.  This includes your looks, their looks, or the looks of others.
  10. Avoid power struggles about food.  If you notice that your loved one isn’t eating, do not try to force them.  This can result in having them shut down, even if it came from a place of care.
  11. Be understanding.  Know that eating disorders are not just about “food”.  There is frequently something underlying the eating disorder that causes much emotional distress.  If it were really as simple to “just eat” or “stop thinking about food”, your loved one would have done that already.  Know that this is a hard road, but that having loved ones by their side can make a challenging journey a bit less bumpy.