8 Ways to Help a Friend With an Eating Disorder

It’s hard to watch someone you care about struggle with disordered eating or an eating disorder. To you, the solution may seem simple; but for the person seeking recovery, it’s typically about more than just food. There may be emotional complications, past traumas, self-image issues, and deeply self-critical elements at play.

You can’t wave a wand and make your friend's issues go away. But you can remain compassionate, supportive, and patient as they do their best to recover. Below are eight tips to help them along the way.

1. Offer to help them find a therapist or other support

If your friend lets you know they’re struggling, it could be considered a compliment to the closeness you share. However, no matter how strong your bond is, treating an eating disorder is a complicated process. It's not one that you can, or should, take on alone.

Depending on the severity of the eating disorder, recovering from an eating disorder requires the support of trained providers.

If your friend is open to starting treatment now, offer to help them get started. Send them a link to a listing site like Zencare. You could also encourage them to get a referral from their medical doctor.

If your friend isn’t open to therapy just yet, you can still suggest other sources of support, like:

Admitting to a disorder is a scary thing; the relative anonymity of these resources may make them more accessible to someone taking their first steps to treatment.

2. Avoid comments about their appearance (even seemingly positive ones)

Someone recovering from an eating disorder is likely to take comments about their appearance especially sensitively. Even small, seemingly-innocuous comments like “You look so healthy!” can be misconstrued; it could in fact leave them worrying whether they’ve put on too much weight.

So instead of complimenting your friend on their appearance, try congratulating them on their progress. Try something like:  

Stephanie Ceranec, a therapist in Chicago who specializes in treating eating disorders, says speaking to how much energy they have is a safe observation, too.

After all, when an individual is going through the recovery process and nourishing their body, there are positive side effects such as uninterrupted sleep during the night, mood increase, stability in mood, less fatigue, thinking clearer, and overall feeling better.

So a statement such as "your energy seems high today," or "you seem to have a lot of energy today" acknowledges that you've noticed these positive shifts without making a comment on their body or appearance, says Ceranec.

In fact, focusing on your friend’s overall effort and potential, rather than their appearance, can motivate them to push past the hold that their eating disorder has on them.

3. Keep negative comments about your own appearance in check

It's important to consider how we treat and refer to ourselves around loved ones struggling with their body image, says Rebecca Brown, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Manhattan who specializes in body image.

Do you say negative things about your appearance, like that you "need to lose weight," or that your "thighs are huge?" What about comments on your eating habits, like "I shouldn't eat this?"

We may speak negatively about ourselves, says Brown, and remain totally oblivious to how it affects others. Unfortunately, that type of language or behavior can reinforce the same unhealthy habits and thoughts your friend may be wrestling with.

If you catch yourself doing this, don't berate yourself or draw further attention to it – you're only human. Just take a deep, grounding breath and see if you can get into a more self-accepting headspace. It's better for your friend and for you!

4. Encourage your friend to replace a toxic social feed with a body positive-one

It’s no secret that social media perpetuates unrealistic depictions of what's “beautiful” – and this can lead to unhealthy goals for weight and body shape. If you've noticed those platforms adding to your friend’s negative thoughts about their body, you can make a concentrated effort to tag them on healthy, inspirational posts!

Body-positive handles to follow on Instagram include:

If you (or your friend) aren't on social media, you can still add body-positivity to their day. Brown recommends sharing these two empowering reads, both written by social advocates in the movement to end body shame and weight stigma:

5. Congratulate them on their small wins  

It’s the little victories that build up to full recovery from an eating disorder. Being there to share your friend’s mini-triumphs is a great way to validate their progress.

"I like to call them Barbie shoe steps," says Ceranec. "The day-to-day progress can look very small, and at the same time, very meaningful."  

These small wins might include:

The exact victories will depend on their eating disorder, but if they do choose to share them with you, respond with validation and excitement.

Say something positive, like, "I know you’ve been working so hard, I can tell this is a huge journey for you and you’re doing great.”

Even if your friend doesn't share these victories with you, you can still honor their progress with an encouraging statement like, “You’re smiling today, it’s so wonderful to see you like this!”

6. Remind them that progress isn’t always linear

Recovery comes with a healthy dose of pressure, both self-inflicted and from others. Let your friend know that you’re not holding them to any set time-limit; getting better is a journey that looks different for everyone.

After all, progress isn’t linear. There might be periods when your friend progresses and regresses – all within the span of a few days. They might be doing well, then have an episode that leaves them questioning whether they've improved at all.

If they share that they feel like they’re back at square one, remind them that the mere fact that they’ve taken steps to a) recognize their disorder, b) share their struggles, and c) seek treatment is testimony to their progress (and bravery)!

This is also where "celebrating the small wins" comes in handy – by acknowledging the building blocks of progress, the bigger picture will come into light.

7. Plan activities that don't revolve around food

Especially in the early stages of recovery from an eating disorder, socializing can pose a stressful dilemma: Many group outings revolve around going out to eat, which can be a challenge to someone who's re-learning their relationship with food.

Make your friend's recovery less lonely by suggesting hangouts or group outings that don't revolve around food. You can go see a movie, host a game night or book club, check out a new museum exhibition, or have an at-home spa day. While food may be involved in these activities, it won't be the main focus – so your friend can join the fun without feeling stressed or scrutinized.

Recovery from an eating disorder is entirely possible. With the right support and treatment, your friend will develop a normalized relationship with food and healthy thoughts around eating. You can’t fix the situation for your friend, but you can actively stick by them to remind them that you’re there to support them on the way.

8. Actively prioritize your own self-care, too

Depending on how close the two of you are, the act of helping a friend through an eating disorder comes with its own set of emotions. These may range from determination and excitement, to frustration and the occasional disappointment. Not to mention, if you yourself have a complicated relationship with your body, it can make it all the harder to be part of someone's support system as they heal.  

Because of the long, at times fickle nature of recovery, be sure to have a good support system in place for yourself throughout this process. That might include a therapist, a gratitude journal, or a daily yoga practice that encourages you to actively practice acceptance of your own body.

Recovery from an eating disorder is entirely possible. With the right support and treatment, your friend will develop a normalized relationship with food and healthy thoughts around eating. You can’t fix the situation for your friend, but you can actively stick by them to remind them that you’re there to support them on the way.