Supporting Somebody With an Eating Disorder

If you’re worried about someone then it’s important to encourage them to seek treatment as quickly as possible to ensure the best chance of recovery. But beyond that, there’s a lot you can do to support someone with an eating disorder, no matter what your relationship with them. Remember that each person is different and will need different things, but this will give you some ideas about what you can do to help.

What to do at mealtimes

Mealtimes are likely to be very hard for the person you’re supporting. Below are some ways you can help them out:

  • If you live with them, plan to eat together. Arrange with them and anyone else who will be present what time you’ll be eating, what you’ll be having, and portion sizes.
  • Meals should be balanced, with a range of foods and sensible portions, taking into consideration the dietary needs of everyone else at the table as well as the person with the eating disorder. 
  • Make sure you have everything necessary for the planned meal. Last-minute changes could cause the person to panic, and in the case of anorexia and other restrictive eating disorders, they might limit their food intake.
  • Shopping together may allow you to introduce new foods that they’re willing to eat in the case of restrictive eating disorders, and discourage them from buying food to binge on where bingeing is a factor in their eating disorder.

  • Keep conversation neutral, avoiding discussion of food or weight.
  • You could have the television or radio on to help distract them and to draw attention away from them.
  • Be aware that people with restrictive eating disorders may need to physically adjust to eating more, as well as mentally adjusting. Start slowly and be wary of pressuring them.
  • You may need to offer encouragement to help them start eating, and further encouragement throughout the meal. Be firm but acknowledge that this is a big effort for them.
  • After a meal, suggest doing something together, like watching a film, to take their mind off possible compensatory behaviours such as purging or exercising, or off the idea of bingeing. 

Support beyond meals

Outside of mealtimes, there are lots of ways to support someone and show them you value them. You may find that their eating disorder causes them to withdraw, but keep inviting them to join in with group and family activities. Offer compliments that don’t relate to their physical appearance, and try to find things to do with them that don’t involve food. Don’t be too critical of yourself if you do make a mistake – you can’t always account for things the person you’re supporting might feel sensitive about, and you’ll be aware for the future.

Whether you live with the person you’re supporting or not, just being there for them and showing them you understand this is not their fault and believe they are worthy of support will make a big difference. And once they’re in recovery, make sure that they feel able to approach you again if they need to in the future – full recovery is completely possible, but relapses are not uncommon.

Looking after a child

  • Remember, it’s important to address the thoughts and feelings causing an eating disorder, not just the behaviour. There are many different therapies that can do this, and no single therapy is the best choice in all cases. Depending on how young they are, you may have a lot of say over their treatment, so remember that if your child isn’t responding well to one form of treatment, they may respond better to another.
  • Be mindful of other children and how the eating disorder might be affecting them. They may need their own emotional support. Our leaflet, “Caring for Someone with an Eating Disorder (for under 18s)” may be useful for siblings of the person with the eating disorder. It is available to download here.
  • If your child has been referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and turns 16 or 18 (depending on the service) they will need to move to Adult Mental Health Services (AMHS). The transition away from the team they know and you can be difficult, so talk to the CAMHS team about how the change can be made as smoothly as possible. 

Looking after a partner

  • If you have children, try to involve them if possible – while you may wish to shield them, children are perceptive and may realise something is wrong. Explain the situation in age-appropriate terms, reassure them, and encourage them to ask questions. If they’re old enough, you could also show them our leaflet “Caring for Someone with an Eating Disorder (for under 18s)”, available on our site.
  • Remember eating disorders are isolating and secretive illnesses by nature, and often cause feelings of low self-esteem and a distorted perception of body size and shape. Your partner probably will not want to be physically or emotionally intimate while they’re ill. This is not them rejecting you, but the eating disorder speaking. Try to understand things from their point of view, but communicate your feelings too. Try to keep doing things together as a couple and as a family.

Looking after a housemate

  • If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to them about your concerns, you could try talking to someone they’re closer with, such as one of their friends or relatives.
  • If you’re both students, your university or college might be able to help. University halls often have resident tutors you could talk to. Many universities have an advice service, specific mental health service, and counselling team, as well as a medical centre.
  • Your housemate may know they have, or be in treatment for, an eating disorder when you meet them. Moving, or having housemates they’ve come to rely on move out, can be a difficult transition, and anything you can do to help them adjust will be useful. They and the people they previously lived with may have come up with a plan for coping with mealtimes, so talk to them about whether there’s a role you can take over.
  • If they’ve moved away from their regular doctor, you could offer to go with them when they go to see their new one.

Looking after a friend

  • Offer practical support such as accompanying them to appointments and helping with day-to-day tasks. You could coordinate this with other friends. If someone is supporting the person with the eating disorder full-time, this could help them, too.
  • Involve them in the same things you would have done before they were ill – eating disorders can be very isolating, and your friend may be worried about people pulling away from them. If they’re undergoing treatment, they may be keen to keep things as normal as possible elsewhere in their life.
  • Try to find things to do that don’t centre around food.

Looking after a colleague

  • If you’re worried and you don’t feel able to talk to a colleague yourself, speak to their line manager about your concerns. You can direct their line manager to the Beat website if they don’t know much about eating disorders.
  • While you may not be close with a colleague, following the advice for how to approach someone with an eating disorder should still be helpful. Talk to them somewhere that you both feel comfortable, and reassure them that they aren’t in trouble.
  • It may be that they are already aware of and in treatment for their eating disorder, in which case offering to help with their workload if they need to take time off to go for appointments could be a good way to support them.

You can also download our booklet “Eating disorders: a guide for friends and family” from our Information Library.

Issue date: February 2017  Review date: February 2020 Version 1.0 Sources used to create this information are available by contacting Beat. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.