How to support a friend with an eating disorder

It’s distressing to see a friend lose a lot of weight when they’re struggling with body image. It’s hard to know what to say or do. 

Here are some warning signs to look out for and tips for how you can offer  support.

The warning signs of a possible eating disorder 

According to Natalie Stitt, a psychologist with Eating Disorders Victoria, it’s about looking for a significant shift in a person’s normal food and exercise behaviour.

“While each person is different, you might be looking out for things like an increasing interest in different weight loss methods, cutting out whole food groups that they consider to be ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’, a preoccupation with exercise or a strong desire to keep losing weight,” says Stitt. 
 
You might become concerned if a friend loses a lot of weight quickly, or becomes quite negative about their body shape.
 
“Feeling negative about your own body or having poor body image exists independently of whether someone is dieting. The reasons behind this can be quite complex,” says Stitt.
 
“The images we see on social media and in magazines can definitely have an impact on how people feel about their bodies. It’s often helpful to remind ourselves that these images have been carefully created and edited. They don’t always reflect how things are in real life.” 
 
Your friend might shy away from social events they would have normally attended, particularly if the occasion involves food.
 
Other warning signs include dizzy spells, a sensitivity to the cold, fatigue or they may be moody, irritable or depressed.

Starting a conversation

It‘s hard to approach a friend or colleague that you’re worried about. But remember it can also be an important first step in their recovery.

“It’s really about listening and making sure the person knows you’re there to support them,” says Stitt. “Making sure that the person feels safe talking to you and trying not to be judgmental about how they’re feeling is important.”

When broaching the topic it’s a good idea to find a moment where you are both calm and have the time and space to speak openly.

“Keep in mind that someone who is struggling with these kind of issues might not be ready to talk, but helping them become aware of services such as Eating Disorders Victoria can be useful so they know where to go if and when they’re ready to talk,” says Stitt.

Stitt says focusing on feelings, rather than confronting them about weight or shape, can help to prevent the conversation being interpreted as judgemental or an attack.
woman sitting on floor
“For example, you might notice they’ve seemed depressed, moody, tired or less inclined to socialise lately, and asking about this can be less threatening than asking about recent changes in their weight or body shape.”

“If the person is experiencing disordered eating patterns that are having an impact on their physical health, they may also be feeling ashamed, guilty or embarrassed. Focusing on how they look may be unhelpful,” says Stitt. 
 
Set yourself realistic expectations and be mentally prepared if your friend reacts badly. They might feel they are being accused, become angry or deny there is a problem at all.
 
One way to prepare for this is to contact a support service, like Eating Disorders Victoria, to help plan how to approach the issue with your friend.  

Practical support

Eating Disorders Victoria says it’s important to treat your friend as you normally would. If you would normally share food for example, continue to do so. 

It recommends arming yourself with information to help understand what your friend is going through and where they can access help. 
 
It’s important to let your friend know there’s a lot of support out there online, over the phone or in person depending on what they’re comfortable with. 
 
Groups like Eating Disorders Victoria have online help, support groups and psychologists on hand to help those dealing with eating disorders. There’s also specialised help and support for loved ones.
 
“An eating disorder doesn’t just affect the person experiencing the symptoms, it has an impact on friends, family and co-workers too,” says Stitt.
 
“The more supported friends and family feel, the better equipped they are to assist the person they’re worried about.”
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