As a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, it can be difficult and painful to watch that person engage in destructive, harmful, and, at times, life-threatening behaviors with food.

These disorders involve extreme disturbances in a person’s relationship with food, weight, and body shape and can involve a wide range of damaging symptoms, including: restricting food intake, obsessive calorie tracking, rigid diet rules, bingeing on large quantities of food in short time periods, compulsive exercise, and purging via self-induced vomiting, exercise, laxatives, fasting, or other means.

To an outsider, the solution may appear simple and straight-forward.

However, eating disorders are more complex than the problematic behaviors you observe.  It’s important to develop a greater understanding of these disorders so you can offer your loved one effective support, as well as learn to take care of yourself in the process.

What you should know about eating disorders:

Eating disorders often come with an immense amount of shame about the behaviors themselves.  As a result, many people suffer in silence and engage in a litany of secretive tactics in an effort to hide their symptoms.  It can therefore be exceedingly difficult for some individuals to reach out to their support networks for help because of these intense feelings of embarrassment, guilt, and shame.

Although it may sound counter-intuitive, eating disorders are not really about food, weight, or body shape.  Instead, eating disorders are behavioral manifestations of underlying emotional distress.

They are the symptoms of much deeper emotional pain, which ultimately must be responded to for meaningful healing to occur.  For many people with eating disorders, various common themes exist that relate to the development of their behaviors: perfectionism, black and white thinking, need for control, trauma, feelings of self-loathing and shame, and a reliance on external validation for self-worth, among others.

What type of support can be helpful?:

It takes a lot of courage, honesty, and hard work for people to confront their eating disorders and engage in the process of recovery.  For many, it can be years before more healthy behaviors with food and exercise are realized on a routine bases, and relapse is a common part of the process.

While loved ones cannot possibly force a person into recovery, they can offer genuine, non-judgmental support and encouragement along the way.

The National Eating Disorders Association offers a useful list of guidelines for talking to a loved one about eating concerns, which emphasizes the importance of caring, de-stigmatizing communication that avoids overly simplistic “solutions.”  People in the throes of an eating disorder need encouragement, support, and boundaries; however, they do not need their loved ones to be the “food police” or tell them to “just eat” or “get over it.”  Such platitudes can feel shaming and do not respond to the real problems of underlying emotional distress.

Instead, leave the recovery process up to the professionals.  Ultimately, taking responsibility for the behaviors, as well as recovery from them, belongs to the individual with the eating disorder, not their loved ones.

What type of professional care is recommended?:

Individuals with eating disorders need a range of professional support as they move into recovery.  It is imperative to address the underlying emotional drivers of the eating disorder behaviors, and as such, the help of a mental health professional via psychotherapy is paramount.  Additionally, people struggling with eating disorders have lost an ability to manage their own diets effectively; thus, the guidance of a dietitian is vital.

Given the dangerous and possibly life-altering impacts of eating disorder behaviors on a person’s body, it is important that a qualified medical professional, such as a general practitioner, be consulted as well.  Some may also benefit from the care of a psychiatrist.  Depending on the severity of a person’s symptoms, any of these professionals will be able to advise on the appropriate level of care, ranging from out-patient services to in-patient residential treatment.

The importance of getting support for yourself:

It can be emotionally taxing to support a loved one at any stage of their process of grappling with and recovering from an eating disorder.  Realistically, you cannot be of assistance to another person if you are not taking proper care of yourself.  Thus, it’s incredibly important to reach out for support of your own.  This can take many forms, from various types of self-care activities to individual therapy and support groups to connection with your family and friends.  Many individuals in recovery from eating disorders attest to the support and encouragement of their loved ones as fundamental to their process of getting well.  As part of that process, you deserve to take solid care of yourself too!

Author: Rachel Hines, Intern

eating disorder therapist