What to Do When You Think Your Friend Has an Eating Disorder

At first, Carrie was happy for her friend too. But, then she started to notice some things that worried her. Lydia had slowly stopped hanging out with her. She didn’t sit with Carrie in the cafeteria for lunch anymore. In fact, she didn’t go the cafeteria at all. She said she wasn’t hungry and would rather study.

Every time Carrie asked Lydia to go to the mall, or to the movies, or just to hang out at her house, she said she couldn’t because she had to get her workout in. It seemed like she was always working out!

And, Carrie couldn’t talk to her about “normal” things anymore. All Lydia seemed to want to talk about were calories, the latest diet fads, and new exercise routines.

Lydia was also starting to look way too thin. All of her clothes hung loosely from her body; sometimes it even seemed like she was deliberately wearing bigger clothes to try to hide how thin she’d become.

One day in Health class, Carrie’s teacher brought up the topics of anorexia and bulimia during a lesson on nutrition. That’s when Carrie realized that her friend Lydia might be in serious danger.

How to Talk to Your Friend About Your Concerns

If the scenario above sounds at all familiar to you—whether your “friend” is a classmate, spouse, daughter, or niece—you may wonder what you should do to help. Here are some tips that may increase the likelihood that your efforts will be seen by your friend as the caring gestures that they are, and will convince her to seek eating disorder treatment.

First, prepare yourself with information:

  • Know the signs of anorexia and bulimia so that you are acting out of clear information rather than uninformed suspicion.
  • Learn about the medical and psychological consequences of eating disorders.
  • Understand that eating disorders are complex. Recovery is not just a matter of will power.
  • Learn what community and healthcare resources are available to help people with eating disorders.

Next, pick a non-stressful time to discuss your concerns with your friend:

  • State your fears to your friend.
  • Describe what you have observed. List evidence of the problem.
  • Be compassionate; listen.
  • Try to understand things from the other person’s perspective. Understand that people with eating disorders often make decisions based on their feelings rather than on facts and logic.
  • Express your concerns about the person’s health and functioning, not just their weight.
  • Indicate your conviction that the situation should at least be evaluated by a professional. If she is a teenager or adolescent encourage her to talk to her parents about the situation.
  • Explain how you can help. If you are both teenagers, offer to go with her to talk to a parent, teacher or trusted adult. If you are both adults, you may be able to offer a referral, information, emotional support or financial support.
  • If you and your friend are people of faith, consider praying together for her well-being and wisdom in her decisions.

Be ready to:

  • End the conversation if it is going nowhere or if the person becomes upset. But, if possible, leave the door open for further conversations.
  • Have patience: If rejected, try again later, explaining that you are coming back because you think the situation is serious.
  • Respond to emergencies: If the person is throwing up several times per day, passing out, complaining of chest pain, or talking about suicide, get help for them immediately.
  • If you and your friend are still in middle school or high school, be ready to reach out to a parent, teacher, or trusted adult and tell them about your concerns.

Things to avoid:

Here are some actions or words that could lead your friend to feel as though she is not being heard and reject your help.

  • Don’t oversimplify. Avoid platitudes like, “Eating disorders are an addiction like alcoholism,” or “All you have to do is accept yourself as you are.”
  • Don’t nag about eating or not eating, or spend time talking about food and weight.
  • Don’t be judgmental; don’t say that what the person is doing is “sick,” “stupid,” or “self-destructive.”
  • Don’t give advice about weight loss, exercise, or appearance.
  • Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” Instead, you can demonstrate that you understand by paraphrasing what the person has said.
  • Don’t feel obliged to agree with the person’s perspective or beliefs, even though you are making an effort to understand them.
  • Don’t bring a group of people to confront the person.

Make Sure You Also Take Care of Yourself

Finally, think about ways to take care of yourself during this stressful time. Remember that you matter too, and that good boundaries will help protect your well-being as well as that of your friend.

  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Definitely, don’t promise to keep the person’s behavior a secret. Eating disorders have the highest death rates of all mental illnesses, so there’s a good chance you might have to get other people involved in helping her.
  • Don’t get over-involved. Know your limits. You are not a substitute for professional care.
  • Find support for yourself. Talk to a counselor or healthcare professional. Attend a support group for family and friends of those with eating disorders.

By following these guidelines, you increase the chances that your desire to help your friend will lead to real change in his or her life. And you are more likely to preserve the friendship and your own balance in the process.

Reach Out to The Meadows Ranch

In our safe and tranquil environment, The Meadows Ranch offers specialized care for women and girls in all stages of eating disorder recovery. Our approach combines proven medical and clinically intensive treatment with life-skills training and experiential programs to help patients restore balance to their lives.

Representatives are available by phone at 866-390-5100 or online at www.remudaranch.com to answer questions regarding eating disorder treatment for themselves, a family member, or loved one. If your friend or her family needs someone to speak to, feel free to give them our contact information.

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