How to help a friend with an eating disorder

Reaching out to a friend or loved one that you suspect is suffering from an eating disorder can be scary, but it is imperative that you speak up. Here is a guide to help you help a friend with eating and body issues:

Educate yourself
Don’t rely on what you think you already know about eating disorders. Before you do anything else, make sure you understand the differences between eating disorders. Read articles and brochures about the symptoms, consequences and treatment options. While this article uses feminine pronouns, please understand that men and women of all ages, shapes and ethnic backgrounds can develop eating disorders; experts and doctors emphasize the disorder is not confined to white teenage girls.

Dr. Kim Dennis, the medical director of the Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, which is located southwest of Chicago, said that people with eating disorders should understand that they did not bring them upon themselves.

“It’s a medical illness,” Dennis says, “and there are people specially trained to help people with eating disorders overcome their illnesses. There is help. They are not alone.”

Respect the other person’s privacy
Talk to your friend in private. Don’t call him or her out in front of a group of people. Embarrassing her by saying “will you just eat” while you are both out with a group of friends will not help the situation. Also avoid arranging the private meeting in front of other people.

Make “I” statements
Starting off the conversation with something along the times of “you have a problem” is a set up for disaster, experts said. You don’t want your friend to feel like you are accusing her of anything. Rather, say “I am concerned about your eating habits.” Show her that you are trying to understand what she is going through by saying “I know this is hard for you.”  Don’t say “I know you are a size 2 and weigh less than 100 pounds, but you need to eat 2,000 calories a day.” Keep numbers, like those relating to sizes, weight and calories, out of the conversation. Stress that your concerns are about health rather than appearance.

Honesty and openness are crucial. Make sure you friend knows that you will not judge him or her. Do not make rules or try to manipulate the situation, like “I will stop talking to you if you don’t stop purging.” You may need to give some tough love, but be aware of where the line has been drawn and do not overstep your boundaries. Do not argue or have it become a battle of wills.

Do not simplify things. Everyone’s eating disorder manifests in a different way, but they are all complex. All of his or her problems will not be solved if he or she eats something. Understand that it is about so much more than the food.

Offer your support
If you would feel comfortable doing so, volunteer to accompany your friend to see a health care professional like a doctor, nutritionist or therapist. Even if you wait in the car, your presence may provide the extra push to get your friend to that first appointment.

Become a role model
Nobody is perfect, but you should try your best to be a good role model when it comes to self-acceptance and living a healthy lifestyle.

Avoid categorizing foods as “good” and “bad.” Many cases of eating disorders are fueled by black and white thinking, experts recommend. Never make a comment about someone’s appearance in relation to their weight, i.e. “she would be more attractive if she lost 15 pounds” or “it looks like she put on the freshman 15.” You might be surprised how often you make weight-driven comments.

As your friend goes through recovery, avoid making comments like “you look much healthier now.” The person with the easy disorder can easily take this to mean that she has gained weight and therefore look fat.

Perhaps the best thing you can do for some is to just be there for them. Help your friend understand that, as cliché as it sounds, real beauty is based on what is on the inside. Make sure he or she knows all about his or her wonderful personality traits and other important attributes that have nothing to do with appearance.