How to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder: Comprehensive Guide

Schedule a Consult
Portrait of happy multi-generational family chatting during gathering outdoors at terrace

Eating disorders are intricate conditions that can have profound physical and emotional repercussions. According to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders affect up to 5% of the population. Given their prevalence and impact, it's of paramount importance to recognize signs and offer support. If you suspect a loved one might be suffering, approaching them with understanding, empathy, and informed knowledge is essential.

At the Kahm Center, we're committed to guiding individuals through this journey, equipping them with insights and strategies to help someone with an eating disorder. This guide will delve into recognizing signs, understanding various eating disorders, and offering sustained support.

How to Tell if My Loved One Has an Eating Disorder?

The signs of an eating disorder can vary, but typical indicators include:

  • Dramatic weight changes
  • Obsession with dieting, calories, and food
  • Avoiding meals or social situations involving food
  • Excessive exercise, even when ill or injured
  • Withdrawing from social situations or isolating
  • Frequent visits to the bathroom after meals

It's important to note that someone doesn't need to exhibit all these signs to have an eating disorder. If you're concerned, especially in the context of caring for a young family member, such as helping your daughter with anorexia, it's always best to approach them gently and with care. This sensitive approach can open a dialogue and provide the support needed to seek professional help.

Different Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complex conditions that manifest differently in individuals. Understanding the specifics of each type is crucial for providing the proper support and seeking appropriate treatment. Here's a deeper look into the primary eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: This disorder is characterized by a distorted body image and an intense fear of gaining weight, often leading to self-starvation and excessive weight loss. This disorder involves an unhealthy obsession with food and dieting. Understanding and supporting a loved one, especially a spouse, through this challenge is crucial. For more comprehensive strategies and guidance on helping your wife with anorexia, we offer targeted resources and support for spouses navigating this difficult journey.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Bulimia involves episodes of overeating (bingeing) followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain (purging). The purging can take the form of vomiting, laxatives, excessive exercise, or fasting. 
  • Binge Eating Disorder: Similar to bulimia, individuals with binge eating disorder experience regular episodes of overeating. However, they do not engage in purging behaviors afterward. Feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and loss of control are common after binge episodes. This is the most common eating disorder in the United States. To understand more about supporting those struggling, you can learn how to help someone with a binge eating disorder.
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): This disorder involves restricting certain foods or food groups, but not due to concerns about weight or appearance. Instead, individuals with ARFID might avoid foods based on texture, smell, or past negative experiences. Learn more about how to help someone with ARFID.

While these disorders may have overlapping symptoms, each presents unique challenges and risks. Recognizing the distinctions is paramount for determining the most effective treatment strategies tailored to each individual's needs.

Ways to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder

Supporting a loved one with an eating disorder can be emotionally challenging, but your involvement can make a significant difference in their recovery. If you believe someone you know is facing such challenges, here are vital steps to consider:

Educate Yourself

Before offering support, take the time to learn about eating disorders. Understand the various types, symptoms, and causes. This proactive step not only equips you to help but also shows your loved one your genuine effort to relate to their experience. Use trusted websites and books, and attend workshops or webinars if possible.

It's also worth noting that eating disorders often coexist with other mental health challenges. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness states that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. face a mental illness. Broadening your understanding of eating disorders and other mental conditions can provide more comprehensive support.

Initiate a Conversation

Approaching someone about their eating disorder requires tact and empathy. Choose a calm, private environment to discuss your concerns. When you talk, emphasize that your worries stem from love and care. Use "I" statements like "I've noticed" or "I'm concerned" rather than accusatory phrases.

Listen Actively

When they start to share, be present. Actively listening means fully concentrating, understanding, and responding to what they're saying. Avoid interrupting or making judgments. Sometimes, a supportive ear is more beneficial than any advice you offer.

Avoid Blame or Guilt

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions rooted in biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. It's not about a simple choice or lack of willpower. Avoid making them feel guilty or blamed, as this can further isolate them. Instead, emphasize that you're there to help and support.

Encourage Professional Help

While your support is invaluable, professional guidance is often essential in addressing eating disorders. Encourage your loved one to seek therapy or counseling from specialists familiar with these conditions. Offer to help them find suitable professionals or accompany them to appointments if comfortable.

In summary, helping someone with an eating disorder is a delicate balance of understanding, patience, and action. Your proactive involvement and expert intervention can pave the way for a hopeful recovery journey.

How Are Eating Disorders Treated?

Addressing eating disorders requires a comprehensive and individualized approach, as these conditions often stem from a complex interplay of psychological, physiological, and sociocultural factors. Here's a deeper dive into the standard components of effective treatment:


Therapeutic interventions are at the core of eating disorder treatment. They provide patients with tools to understand their behaviors, emotions, and thought patterns:

  • Individual Therapy: This one-on-one therapy allows the patient to work intimately with a therapist, delving into personal issues and understanding the root causes of the disorder
  • Group Therapy: Here, patients interact with others facing similar challenges. Sharing experiences can reduce feelings of isolation and provide peer support.
  • Family Therapy: Since family dynamics can sometimes contribute to or exacerbate an eating disorder, involving family members can be pivotal. This therapy aims to educate the family, improve communication, and build a supportive home environment.

Medical Monitoring

Regular medical check-ups are essential given the potential physical health risks associated with eating disorders, such as malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, and heart complications. Doctors monitor vital signs, conduct blood tests, and ensure the patient's physical health is stable during recovery.

Nutritional Counseling

Nutritional rehabilitation is a cornerstone of eating disorder treatment. A registered dietitian or nutritionist works with the patient to:

  • Develop a balanced meal plan tailored to their needs
  • Educate them about the importance of varied and adequate nutrition
  • Challenge and rectify food myths or misconceptions
  • Help them cultivate a healthier relationship with food

In essence, treating eating disorders is a holistic process that focuses on alleviating symptoms and equipping patients with the knowledge, skills, and support needed for long-term recovery.

What Level of Care Does My Loved One Need?

Navigating the path to recovery from an eating disorder is a nuanced process. According to a 2022 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, it's paramount that patients receive the right balance of supervision, medical attention, and therapeutic support. Determining the most appropriate level of care for your loved one becomes essential in this context. Here's a detailed overview of the treatment levels:

  • Inpatient: This level provides intensive, hospital-based care for severe cases with immediate medical risks or if previous outpatient treatments have been ineffective. Patients receive round-the-clock monitoring, medical care, therapy, and nutritional support.
  • Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP): PHP offers day treatment as a step-down from inpatient care or an escalation from outpatient services. This usually involves attending a treatment center for most of the day, several days a week. Patients benefit from intensive therapy sessions, group activities, and regular check-ins but return home in the evenings.
  • Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP): IOP is less intensive than PHP but still provides a structured environment. It's suitable for those who need consistent support rather than constant supervision. Sessions are typically multiple times a week, focusing on therapy, skills training, and group discussions.
  • Outpatient: At this level, patients attend regular therapy sessions, perhaps once a week or bi-weekly, without needing daily monitoring. It's ideal for those who have progressed through more intensive treatments or those with milder symptoms.

A comprehensive evaluation by professionals, including therapists, nutritionists, and physicians, will help ascertain the individual's current needs. This assessment considers the severity of the disorder, any underlying medical complications, the patient's mental state, and their support system at home. With a clear understanding, a tailored treatment pathway can be built for optimal recovery.

How Can I Support Them After Eating Disorder Treatment?

Once your loved one completes their eating disorder treatment, the journey toward full recovery continues. Continuing your support during this critical phase is essential. Here’s a detailed guide on how you can be there for them:

  • Stay Educated: Recovery is often not linear and can be ongoing. Stay updated on the latest research, insights, and techniques related to eating disorders. This will equip you to support your loved one better and anticipate potential challenges they might face.
  • Open Communication: Regularly check in with them and encourage open dialogue. Let them know you're available to listen, share, and provide a shoulder to lean on. Respect their boundaries, but assure them they don't have to face their struggles alone.
  • Encourage Healthy Habits: While being empathetic, you can also be a positive influence. Engage in activities that promote well-being together, like cooking nutritious meals or practicing mindfulness. Be understanding, but gently encourage habits that contribute to healthy eating and overall self-care.
  • Join Support Groups: Participating in support groups can offer invaluable insights into the recovery process. These groups not only provide a platform for your loved one to share and learn but also allow you to connect with others who are supporting someone in recovery. Together, you can share experiences, advice, and coping strategies.

By staying informed, keeping lines of communication open, promoting health, and seeking communal support, you can play a pivotal role in ensuring your loved one's sustained recovery post-treatment.

Outpatient Eating Disorder Treatment - Kahm Center

The Kahm Center in Burlington, Vermont, offers specialized outpatient treatment for those battling eating disorders. With a focus on holistic care, we provide both PHP and IOP levels of care tailored to meet individual needs with our eating disorder treatment services. If you or your loved one is seeking support and treatment, consider the Kahm Center's expert team and compassionate care. Addressing an eating disorder early and with the right resources can make all the difference.

Understanding how to help someone with an eating disorder is a journey of compassion, education, and patience. Together, with the proper support, recovery is possible.


Clinically Reviewed By

nick kahm reviewer

Nick Kahm, PhD


Nick Kahm, a former philosophy faculty member at St. Michael's College in Colchester, VT, transitioned from academia to running the Kahm Clinic with his mother. He started the clinic to train dietitians in using Metabolic Testing and Body Composition Analysis for helping people with eating disorders. Now, he is enthusiastic about expanding eating disorder treatment through the Kahm Center for Eating Disorders in Vermont.

Looking for treatment?

We're Here to Help!
Call for Assessment