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.

Issue date: September 2017  Review date: September 2020 Version 2.0 Sources used to create this information are available by contacting Beat. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.