Eating disorders are serious illnesses that can lead to life-changing and even life-threatening health problems. Nearly 1 in 10 Americans will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Support from loved ones can help them survive and overcome these dangerous conditions. If you’re looking for answers about how to support someone with an eating disorder, here are some ways you can help.
What is an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are mental health conditions that can cause a preoccupation with food, body weight, and/or appearance, leading to behaviors, thoughts, and feelings about food and eating that threaten overall health. There are several types of eating disorders, including:
- Anorexia nervosa – People suffering from this disease strictly limit their food intake. Anorexia is a very serious health condition that is associated with extreme weight loss in most cases, as well as a higher risk of death than any other mental health condition, including depression.
- Bulimia nervosa – People with bulimia use various tactics, including vomiting or taking laxatives (known as purging), or exercising excessively to “get off” or burn calories. People with this disorder experience at least some episodes of binge eating (eating large amounts of food at one time) before engaging in purging behavior. Purging can also occur after eating small meals or snacks.
- Binge eating disorder – This is the most common eating disorder. People with this condition eat large amounts of food in a short period of time, often alone or in secret, because of the shame, guilt and anxiety they feel about their eating. Binge eating disorder involves eating without purging.
Many factors can contribute to whether a person develops an eating disorder. These include family history, ingrained eating behaviors (such as previous dieting or limited access to food), other mental health conditions (such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder), stress, and societal pressure.
Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, or body weight. Although anorexia and bulimia are more common in women and girls (although they can still occur in men), binge eating disorder affects almost as many men as women.
Treatment and support
If you’re wondering how to support someone with an eating disorder, Dr. Gary Litovitz has a guide that can help. Dr. Here, Dr. Litowitz offers suggestions for how friends and family can encourage someone on the road to recovery.
Encourage positive self-esteem and coping mechanisms
First, Dr. Litowitz says, focus on building a positive self-esteem and sense of self that isn’t based on how you look or getting thin. “You want to avoid focusing on body weight or shape or thinness as a sign of success,” she explains. This is even true for those who weigh more than is healthy for them. “Don’t talk about weight loss, but about eating a variety of healthy foods in the context of health and proper nutrition.”
Instead of thinking and talking about whether food is good or bad, emphasize balance and moderation in your food choices. This builds confidence and encourages the development of healthy habits.
Family members and friends should not praise weight loss, which can sometimes lead to or exacerbate eating disorders. Our society tends to glamorize weight loss and thinness, says Dr. Litovitz.
“People sometimes think of having an eating disorder as a badge of honor,” she explains. “They don’t realize the price paid or the real impact on health and life goals.” She encourages people to share accurate information about how eating disorders like anorexia nervosa affect overall health and even risk of death.
Eating disorders can occur in response to stressful or high-pressure situations, Dr. Litovitz adds. Encouraging healthy coping mechanisms can help prevent and treat eating disorders. For example, she encourages loved ones to normalize seeking help in difficult situations. This may include talking to a school counselor or mental health professional.
Dr. Litovitz says that if someone says they want to self-manage an eating disorder or other mental health problem, it’s often a stigma against mental health treatment. Asking for help or seeking mental health care “is nothing to be ashamed of,” she adds. In fact, reaching out for help during times of stress is a sign of resilience and a healthy coping strategy.
Know the signs
Loved ones should be aware of the signs of eating disorders, such as skipping meals, avoiding family meals, and other social situations that involve eating, eating in secret, or disappearing to the bathroom after eating. Weight loss can be another sign, but people of any weight can have eating disorders.
If you notice any of the signs, Dr. Litowitz suggests talking to the person without judgment. “Wait for a rebuttal,” he says. “Eating disorders can be a source of embarrassment and shame.”
She explains that it’s important to create a safe environment for people to feel comfortable talking about their illness. “Let them know how common eating disorders are and that you want to help them solve their struggles with food and body image,” says Dr. Litovitz, urging “non-judgmental listening that is judgmental or threatening. no”:
Consider treatment options
Many people with eating disorders try to avoid treatment. However, the sooner someone receives treatment, the better their chance of recovery.
When considering treatment options, Dr. Litowitz explains that there are several levels of care, including outpatient treatment, partial hospitalization, and hospital or residential programs. Treating eating disorders can be very different from other mental health conditions, so it’s important for professionals to have specialized training outside of general psychiatry or psychology. Family members and partners should also be expected to participate in treatment, Dr. Litowitz says.
A multidisciplinary team that includes a therapist, dietitian, and physician, all with specialized training in eating disorders, can best identify the approach for specific situations. Although eating disorders often co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, they should still receive care at an eating disorder clinic, Dr. Litovitz says. “An eating disorder can affect mental health, so it’s important to treat that first,” she explains.
Healing takes time and commitment on the part of the individual as well as family and friends, says Dr. Litovitz. It may take several attempts before treatment results in recovery. Recovery can look different for everyone. it can mean no longer engaging in disordered behaviors, as well as weight regain for those whose bodies need it. Still, Dr. Litowitz says, “treatment is the best path to a healthy future.”
Find information about mental health resources from our larger healthcare network, HCA Healthcare.