How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder

It is often difficult for family and friends to understand why someone they love may be experiencing food and weight problems. Though frustrating, it is important to realize that only the person experiencing the difficulty can make the decision to get help and choose the type they need and want.

An eating disorder is a coping strategy that an individual uses to deal with deeper problems too painful or difficult to address directly. There is a wide range of services available, not all of which will be appropriate for any given person. Since it is not beneficial for him/her to stay in a treatment setting he or she finds unhelpful or possibly even damaging, the sufferer is the one who needs to make the ultimate decision about the help required.

As a psychotherapist who specializes in women with food and body image issues, I often get questions via e-mail and phone regarding how family and friends can help a loved one who is experiencing an eating disorder.

I have some very valuable resources on this topic on my main Web site (http://estherkane.com) under “disordered eating.” I recommend that you peruse these as they have a load of invaluable information for both people with eating disorders and for those who want to support them.

For now, I have gathered what I think are some of the best sources of information on the topic. I hope they are helpful to you or someone you know.

The first section is adapted from The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (Canada) Web site (http://www.nedic.ca); I strongly urge you to check out this site as it has a lot of great information and useful resources.

When first approaching your friend or family member, understand that he or she might not welcome your concern and may even react with anger or denial. The person will discuss their eating disorder with someone when they feel ready. She will probably feel more able to do so when she knows of your concern but it is impossible to force any type of conversation (an exception may be if the condition constitutes a medical emergency).

Be prepared for the possibility that a discussion about their eating problems might not lead to any change in attitude or behavior on their part. Again, this is because the person may have very good reasons for not giving up the eating disorder as a “coping strategy.”

Top 10 Things To Do When Someone You Care About Struggles With Disordered Eating

1. Have patience. Anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating can take a long time to resolve. However, recovery is possible. Nothing should be forced upon anyone, as their choices should be their own. This approach encourages empowerment.

2. Support the person. Let the person know you care and that you are aware of what is happening. Listen attentively and allow the person to express her feelings. Be prepared for a range of emotional responses such as denial and anger.

3. Use the right language. Avoid discussions about weight, body shape, fat and food. Focus on activities not associated with food or appearance.

4. Show persistence and love. Maintain a relationship with the person. Do not give up! Though it can be difficult to accept, it is her vulnerability to these destructive patterns that facilitate the preoccupation with weight loss. Keep the lines of communication open. Although the person may pull away from you, do not take their behavior personally.

5. Know that information is power. Find out about disordered eating by visiting support groups, knowing the signs and symptoms, reading books, learning facts and myths, finding resources, talking with peer support, understanding treatments, seeing a counselor, learning about healthy living, body image, and self-esteem. Recovery can be a frustrating process and this knowledge can alleviate feelings of powerlessness.

6. Be a friend. Do not take on the role of therapist. It is the trust between friends that has great value in a healing relationship. Do not badger the person about eating; you cannot cure them. He or she has to take responsibility for changes. It will happen when the person is ready.

7. Avoid judgment. Reflect on and examine your beliefs towards body shape, diets and fat prejudice. Personal comments may unknowingly promote a desire for thinness.

8. Provide resources. Assist the individual to seek help. Be there in the most appropriate way with which you both feel comfortable.

9. Let go of blame. Disordered eating can be a manifestation of many forms of stress. Blame reinforces a sense of failure and distance. Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and decreased self-confidence are usually contributing factors.

10. Keep in touch. Recovery does not occur in isolation. This may mean seeking advice about your concerns from family members, friends, a school counselor or a public health nurse. Your efforts may save a life. Early intervention increases chances of recovery and decreases the chance of relapse later on.

*Adapted from the NationalEating Disorders Information Centre (Toronto) and the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association (Windsor)

What Can I Do To Prevent Disordered Eating?

1. Learn all you can about anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Genuine awareness will help you avoid judgmental or mistaken attitudes about food, weight, body shape, and eating disorders.
2. Discourage the idea that a particular diet, weight, or body size will automatically lead to happiness and fulfillment.
3. Choose to challenge the false belief that thinness and weight loss are great, while body fat and weight gain are horrible or indicate laziness, worthlessness or immorality.
4. Avoid categorizing foods as “good/safe” vs. “bad/dangerous.” Remember, we all need to eat a balanced variety of foods.
5. Decide to avoid judging others and yourself on the basis of body weight or shape. Turn off the voices in your head that tell you a person’s body weight says anything about their character, personality, or value as a person.
6. Avoid conveying an attitude of, “I will like you better if you lose weight, or don’t eat so much, etc.”
7. Become a critical viewer of the media and its messages about self-esteem and body image. Talk back to the television when you hear a comment or see an image promoting thinness at all costs. Rip out (or better yet, write to the editor about) advertisements or articles in your magazines that make you feel bad about your body shape or size.
8. Be a model of healthy self-esteem and body image. Recognize that others pay attention and learn from the way you talk about yourself and your body. Choose to talk about yourself with respect and appreciation. Choose to value yourself based on your goals, accomplishments, talents and character. Avoid letting the way you feel about your body weight and shape determine the course of your day. Embrace the natural diversity of human bodies and celebrate your body’s unique shape and size.

* Adapted from the National Eating Disorders Association’s website: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
Esther Kane, MSW, Registered Clinical Counselor, is the author of the soon-to-be-released book and audio program, “It’s Not About the Food: A Woman’s Guide To Making Peace with Food and Our Bodies.” Sign up for her free monthly e-zine, Women’s Community Counselor, to uplift and inspire women at: www.estherkane.com.

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