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What to Do if You Think Your Friend Has an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are very tough subjects. It can be even tougher if you suspect a friend might have one. What can you do about it? There are some simple steps you can take to help your friend and yourself out of this difficult and dangerous situation.

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By Laura Allan

signs of an eating disorder how to help a friend with an eating disorder

A friend of yours has been acting funny recently and you're beginning to wonder if they have an eating disorder. If they do, they aren't alone. Ten to 15% of all adults in the United States have some form of eating disorder. You're probably asking yourself how you can help. There are a few things you should absolutely do for your friend, and a few things you should not do.

Do Not:

Ignore it

It can be tempting to shrug off your suspicions and assume that it's all in your mind. That's not a good idea. Eating disorders can often become deadly if left untreated. You might tell yourself that you're not sure or that it could be another reason your friend is acting strange. Don't talk yourself out of acting or at least trying to find out more. Your friend's life may depend on it.

Try to Fix it Yourself

If you do find your friend has a disorder, you might want to do everything in your power to fix it. You can only do so much, however, and trying to do more can often make the problem worse. You're not going to be able to talk them out of their habits with logic or facts. Setting up a system to control when and where your friend eats will only push them away. Many people have eating disorders because they feel a lack of control in life and their diet is the only thing they feel they have control over. Restricting that as well can drive them to more destructive behaviors. It's hard to understand or treat a disorder without extensive training beforehand, of which you have none. In short, you're not a trained professional so don't try to take on the role of one.

Get Mad

It can be frustrating to deal with a person who has an eating disorder. You might not understand their motivations or feelings. It can be even harder when they refuse to admit they have a problem or seek out help. Despite how confusing and enraging their behavior might be, don't allow yourself to get mad. It's important to remember that the disorder is to blame here, not your friend. What they need right now is a reminder that you care and only want what's best for them, not anger.

Talk About Food or Weight Loss

If you talk about body image or food regularly, now is the time to stop. Reminding your friend of how much they eat or what their body looks like isn't going to help them. Your friend also might be the one to bring up food and weight loss. They may tell you how many calories they had today or what the fat content is in everything you eat. Politely tell them that you don't want to talk about things like that. You don't want to reinforce obsessive behavior so make sure they know those topics are off limits.

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Do:

Know the Signs of Eating Disorders

Educating yourself about the problem makes it easier for you to understand and empathize with your friend, so get informed. If you have suspicions that your friend has a problem, you should know what else to look for. If they show several of the following signs, then they may indeed have an eating disorder:

  • They are uncomfortable with their body image (see themselves as fat or ugly when they are not)
  • They have lost a lot of weight very quickly
  • They talk about how little they eat or how much they weigh as if it's a competition
  • They must exercise every day, even if they are sick or injured
  • They seem obsessed with fat and calories in what they and others eat
  • They do not have meals with you or disappear for a while right after meals
  • They wear baggy clothing to hide their shape
  • They cut food and move it around their plate rather than eating it
  • They go to the bathroom frequently or vomit regularly
  • They talk about 'being bad' or 'being weak' whenever they eat
  • They are very defensive about their eating and weight-loss habits
  • They feel cold, dizzy and physically weak often or have fainting spells
  • They weigh themselves constantly
  • They take diet pills or laxatives
  • They have cuts and scars on the backs of their knuckles (from making themselves vomit)
  • They are not eating at all

Confront Them

This is possibly the hardest and also the most vital part. If you think your friend has a problem, speak up. You might be afraid they will react badly to you confronting them, and they probably will. It's quite common for people with an eating disorder to become defensive and even angry. They may deny they have a problem when they obviously do. Remember not to get angry, be calm and tell them that you're only worried about them and that you care. Even if they give you another reason for their symptoms, like an illness or chronic condition, continue to keep an eye open. They could be lying. It's difficult to help someone who doesn't want it, so be ready to give them a little space and seek other means of getting them assistance. It's also important to remember that this is not a betrayal on your part. A mad friend is a lot better than a dead friend.

Direct Them to a Professional

In case you can get them to admit there is a problem, have information about professional help ready. Research and recommend support groups in your area and specialists for eating disorders. Even just walking with them to the school counseling office is a start. It's important that they get treatment from someone who knows how to handle the situation better than you. Even if they are not ready to admit they have a problem, you can still give them a few brochures or websites just in case they reconsider.

Tell Their Parents or Teachers

If they are unwilling to listen to you, maybe they will listen to someone in their own family. Talking to one of their parents can be valuable. However, it can be daunting to talk to someone you might not be very familiar with and parents can go into denial themselves when told their child has a problem. It's often better to approach a professor or advisor and ask them to call the parents instead. Coming from someone who is not a college student, the information might be better received. Teachers may have also seen this problem before and know how to deal with it in other ways.

Get Support for Yourself

Paying attention so much to someone else's problems can put a lot of strain on your own mood and health. Consider seeing a professional to help deal with the stress and emotions associated with this ordeal, even just once a month. Also remember to eat well yourself, get a good night's sleep and try to make some me-time to unwind.

Concerned about your friend's drinking habits? Learn a little about college and drinking.

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