I think my friend has an eating disorder, what should I do?

Do you suspect your friend has an eating disorder, but you’re unsure what to do about it? 

Eating disorders are serious and complex mental health illnesses, so in this post, I’m going to:

  • Help you identify the signs of an eating disorder.
  • Guide you through what to do if you think your friend has an eating disorder.
  • Let you know about the help and support that are available.

What should I look out for if I think my friend has an eating disorder?

There are several signs to look out for if you think this could be the case. 

Sadly, we live in a diet and image-obsessed culture, one where ‘watching your weight’ and scrutinising your appearance has become normalised. Because of this, it can sometimes be hard to tell if your friend has an eating disorder. How do you know when your friend’s behaviour has tipped over into something dangerous? 

The thing to remember is – you know your friend, and if you feel something’s off, it’s worth looking a bit more closely.

Common signs of an eating disorder:

  • An obsession with food and weight – talking about it all the time.
  • Always talking about body dissatisfaction.
  • Exercising excessively.
  • Looking pale, complaining of being tired and/or cold all the time.
  • Losing weight and/or hiding their body with loose-fitting clothes.
  • Periods may stop.
  • Anxious around mealtimes.
  • Frequently making excuses at mealtimes that they’ve already eaten.
  • Prefers eating in private.
  • Cutting food into small mouthfuls, pushing it around the plate, and leaving a lot of food on the plate. 
  • Suddenly cutting out major food groups.
  • Calorie counting.
  • Behaving defensively about their eating habits.
  • Being more irritable.
  • Not engaged in conversations the way they used to be.
  • Disappearing to the bathroom right after a meal.

You may notice food disappearing, or that your friend is hiding food, and claiming to have eaten when they haven’t. 

This secretive behaviour is a means for your friend to ensure s/he cannot be stopped. When in the throes of an eating disorder, perceived control over eating is key. Controlling how and when they eat can become a way for your friend to cope with big emotions and can help them feel safer in the short term. 

If I think my friend has an eating disorder, should I do something?

Due to the seriousness of eating disorders, staying quiet is not the thing to do. The danger with eating disorders is we often don’t see the illness or take action until it’s too late. If your friend were bleeding, you’d do something to help them, wouldn’t you?

The sooner you can get help for your friend, the better. 

  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
  • Without treatment, up to 20% of people with serious eating disorders die.
  • Anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric illness (including major depression).

Physically, eating disorders can cause low blood pressure, a weak pulse, dental problems, low levels of testosterone, absent periods, infertility, loss of electrolytes, an irregular heartbeat, and heart failure. If you’d like to understand more about these effects, you can find lots more detail in this post about 6 common misconceptions about eating disorders.  

You might feel scared, and unsure what to do, and that’s ok. Let me guide you through some of the ways you can offer support if you suspect your friend has an eating disorder.

How to approach your friend if you think they have an eating disorder

Remember, this is a very sensitive topic for your friend, so don’t be disheartened if your friend shuts down when you broach the subject with them. 

Your friend may not be thinking clearly. They may be confused, ashamed, or frightened. They may be defensive. These are all normal reactions in this situation.

Don’t expect just by talking with your friend you’ll be able to fix it. Eating disorders require the help of trained professionals. However, some of the ways you can support your friend are:

  • Explain you’re concerned about them and that you care.
  • Let them know you’re there for them.
  • Ask them what you can do to help.
  • Focus on things that aren’t food or body-related.
  • Focus on their strengths.
  • Watch your own ‘diet talk’ around them.
  • Try to be patient.

What other support is available?

If you think your friend has an eating disorder, you should reach out for help, especially if your friend is unwilling to discuss it with you. It may feel like a betrayal if your friend is in denial about their eating disorder, but due to the serious associated health implications, you’re doing the right thing to seek help. People suffering from an eating disorder rarely get better on their own.

Speaking to a parent, tutor, a university or college counsellor, or a GP is a good place to start. Please remember, it’s not your responsibility to ‘fix’ your friend, but you can be there as support. 

If you’re struggling to cope with the feelings associated with this or would like to discuss how we can help, please book a free consultation today.

Take care,

Dr Courtney 


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