Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Tips for supporting someone with an eating disorder

Lead Image Credit: mododeolhar

By Daniella Theis

Content warning:

This article discusses eating disorders in a way that some people might find triggering. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating in any way, see the resources at the bottom of this page.

According to figures published by Beat – the UK’s eating disorder charity – it is estimated that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. As part of their campaign to highlight the impact of eating disorders, the charity runs Eating Disorder Awareness Week each year. Under the banner of #YouMightKnowMe, this year’s campaign focuses on highlighting binge eating disorder in particular. This type of eating disorder is often less known – despite it being estimated that  one in fifty people will be affected by binge eating disorder in their lifetime. Other diagnosed eating disorders include anorexia, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)bulimia, and other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED).

Eating disorders can affect anyone at any time. The causes are complex but are assumed to include a mix of genetic, biological, and cultural factors. What is important to remember, is that eating disorders are not necessarily about food or weight. Rather they often centre around control and function as a coping mechanism They are serious, mental illnesses requiring appropriate treatment. The good news is that eating disorders are treatable and people can (and do) recover fully. The sooner someone gets the treatment and support they need, the more likely they are to make a full recovery. You might wonder: How can I best help someone with an eating disorder? 

Beat has an abundance of tips available for people wanting to support someone with an eating disorder. For Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we have compiled some of these for you:

1.) Gain an understanding of the common symptoms of an eating disorder

Often eating disorders are automatically associated with drastic weight loss and people assume that anyone suffering from an eating disorder will be underweight. However, you cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. Not everyone will experience the same symptoms – some people might be underweight, but others might be a normal weight or overweight.

Some signs that may be associated with all eating disorders include:

  • Preoccupation with and/or secretive behaviour around food 
  • Self-consciousness when eating in front of others
  • Low self-esteem
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Tiredness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety

2.) Make yourself familiar with common myths and misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about eating disorders: It is often assumed that eating disorders only affect girls or young women, or that they are “a diet gone wrong.” However, eating disorders can affect anyone at any time regardless of their age, gender, ethnic or cultural background and do not always centre around weight loss or being a particular weight. Myths and misconceptions about eating disorders can be harmful because they can prevent early recognition and treatment. Knowing the facts can help you to better identify and support anyone suffering from eating disorders.

3.) Speak with the person you think is affected by an eating disorder about your concerns

Encouraging someone into treatment as quickly as possible can help them with their chances of recovery drastically. Having such conversations, however, can be difficult. You might worry that attempts to have such conversations could end in emotional outbursts or hurtful comments. While it is possible that this might be the case, there are also ways for you to prepare for the conversation that could prevent the situation from escalating: 

  • Prepare what you want to say and make sure you feel informed. You can also have some information to hand that you can actively refer to while having the conversation. Alternatively, you could leave said information there for the person to look at in their own time
  • Choose a date and time where you both feel safe and can have the conversation without being disturbed. Mealtimes can be especially upsetting or triggering for people with eating disorders, so it is best to avoid having conversations close to these times
  • Avoid centring the conversation around food and/or weight. It might seem tricky if these are the things that sparked your concern in the first place, but these subjects might be topics that the person you are worried about will see as triggering. Mentioning them might cause them to become defensive or to withdraw
  • Ask the person you are worried about what you can do to help and assure them that you are there for them if they need you
  • Finally, if you don’t feel comfortable having these conversations with the person you are worried about yourself, then consider reaching out to someone else they might be closer with; other friends, relatives, or family members.

4.) Offer your support with tasks or situations they might find difficult or triggering

Eating disorders can take over almost every aspect of a person’s life and can make some daily tasks difficult – especially if they might be triggering. This can include things such as food shopping, having set meals during mealtimes, participating in social events, or reaching out for help and support. People suffering from eating disorders often isolate themselves, so offering your help with tasks or being there to support them through these situations can help people in their recovery:

  • Offer to go food shopping together or offer to do the food shop for them if they experience anxiety doing a food shop themselves
  • Offer to plan and cook meals with them. If you are eating together, avoid discussing topics such as diets or exercise 
  • Signpost them to help services offered by charities or university help services. You could also offer to go to the GP with them 
  • Help them return to hobbies they used to enjoy or help them find new hobbies
  • It’s also sometimes important to stay persistent. People with eating disorders may become withdrawn because of their illness. Try as best as you can to invite them to group or family activities and to encourage participation in social events that don’t revolve around food or exercise.
  • If the person you are worried about is a fellow student, you might notice them showing symptoms during exam season or busy academic periods. Eating disorders can develop as a coping mechanism for people when they face situations that are out of their control (such as exams). Sharing notes and resources, offering to take study breaks together, and reminding the person of the bigger picture – that exams are not everything that’s important in life – can help someone struggling with the symptoms of an eating disorder.

5.) Remember to look after your own health while supporting someone

While it is important to offer support to anyone you think might be struggling with an eating disorder, it is also important to look after your own mental and physical health while you are offering support. There are a few things to always keep in mind:

Recognise that you are not to blame for the other person’s illness.

Remind yourself that there’s hope and that things will change. Recovery is possible.

Should you have a conversation escalate, or should you notice yourself getting angry or annoyed, try not to feel too guilty about it. Having these conversations can be extremely emotional and tough. Try to talk again when both of you have calmed down and try to explain your emotions. Encourage the person you are supporting to do the same.

On the above note, it is still important to remember that there are boundaries. Although the person you are supporting might be ill and this needs some consideration, they do not have the right to hurt you or other people. Again, wait till things have calmed down and explain these boundaries and that certain behaviours are not acceptable or okay.

Consider joining support groups to speak with other people in the same situation as you.

These are some, but by no means an exclusive list of, tips for people wanting to support someone with an eating disorder. In addition to the above advice, Beat has published a guide for friends and family, and the charity also has an abundance of advice articles – both for people living with and people supporting someone with an eating disorder – on their webpage. Eating disorder support service SEED have also created a free resource with facts for schools alongside their educational toolkit to help teachers gain a better understanding of triggers and symptoms of eating disorders. 

Eating disorders can have a detrimental effect on the lives of people suffering from them, as well as their loved ones supporting them. The silver lining is that, with the right support, recovery is possible and that the more the stigma around mental illness and eating disorders is lifted, the more people will feel like they can get help and support in future.

The above content has been compiled using information from charities supporting people with eating disorders (and their supporters). We are not offering medical advice and want to strongly encourage anyone who is suffering from eating disorders, or anyone supporting someone, to seek help through designated services.

How to get help: 

Beat’s Helplines are open 9am – 8pm weekdays and 4pm – 8pm weekends and bank holidays on 0808 801 0677 and you can find more information about their Support Services on their web page.

You can also contact SEED at 01482 718130

If you are in need of urgent help for yourself or someone else outside of designated helpline opening hours, please contact 999 or the Samaritans on 116 123 if you or someone else is in immediate danger.