How to help a friend or family member who's anorexic

How do you help a friend who appears to be anorexic? Or a family member who seems they have an eating disorder?

Most important: Be positive, not negative. Approach with empathy rather than criticism.

People were concerned about my appearance and me. They saw how I was getting thinner. I really appreciated the ones who approached me with care and concern rather than judgment - it was really hard on me when people like one of my own family members accused me of trying to lose weight and look thinner, as if I wanted to.

I was a bit unlike others with eating disorders in that I was really happy to see my body getting bigger as I gained weight in recovery. I always wanted to gain weight and to see it visually happening didn’t disturb me. I never feared weight gain. I was always really frustrated when I stepped on a scale and had seen the weight had fallen, because I knew I wanted it to go up. I knew if it went up people would feel less scared for me and I’d be more socially accepted.

I've talked to my friends with eating disorders about their experiences, and they feel similarly.

Here's how one of them put it...

When approaching people you're concerned about:

  • emphasize you're coming from a place of care

  • ask questions rather than asserting too much

  • say what you've seen and ask how the person is thinking or feeling about it

  • "Are you okay?" is a great question

  • ask what they need - this helps them question this for themselves too

  • be patient and listen

Try to refrain from:

  • ultimatums

  • comments on appearance

  • A minor caveat, I did benefit from someone telling me I'd be prettier if I gained more weight

  • blaming or shaming

  • saying "You just need to eat" or "What's wrong with you?"

  • Insulting

Do not force the person to eat more

A person with an eating disorder has enough stress over eating. Be encouraging about food, not forceful. It can help to model healthy eating behavior - eat bigger portion sizes around the sufferer and show that you're not judging how much they eat.

One friend with an eating disorder had told me that it was really damaging for her when people ate smaller portions around her, like just a salad. She and I both benefited when the people we ate with had bigger portions.