How to Speak Supportively to Someone With an Eating Disorder

Three Methods:Speaking With Knowledge and PurposeChoosing the Right Time and PlaceOffering Compassion and Support

It can be hard to know just what to do when you discover someone has an eating disorder. Some people attempt to change how the person feels and expect it to work, but this usually isn’t an effective deterrent for a person with an eating disorder. An eating disorder is a serious condition that often requires professional help, but always requires care and understanding from those who love the person with the eating disorder. It can be a difficult situation to navigate, but there are many things you can do to help yourself speak supportively to a person with an eating disorder.

Method 1
Speaking With Knowledge and Purpose

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    Educate yourself. Research what it means to suffer from an eating disorder, how people cope with it, and what steps can be taken to overcome the problem. It is important that you have at least a little bit of background knowledge so the person will listen to you and think that you are someone they can talk to about their problem.[1]
    • The more you learn about their condition, the better equipped you’ll be to approach them with your concern. They may be suffering from extreme levels of anxiety or depression that you are unaware of. But learning about the condition might make you realize that these factors could be affecting them too.
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    Recognize the symptoms of eating disorders. If you suspect someone you care about is suffering from an eating disorder, make sure you do a little checking before you broach the subject with them. It is important to recognize the symptoms so you don’t make any false accusations or unnecessarily bring up a tough subject.[2]
    • Symptoms of anorexia nervosa include abnormally low body weight, taking extreme measures to control body weight (including laxatives, diet pills, or intense exercising), and a distorted perception of one’s own body.
    • Symptoms of bulimia nervosa include episodes of binge eating (eating more than you should or more than you feel comfortable consuming) followed by episodes of purging the excess calories – usually through vomiting, but sometimes through extreme exercise or laxatives. There is usually an intense feeling of shame or guilt associated with the binging.
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    Be receptive. Be supportive, but be receptive to what you think that they really need. Don't make false promises and try to convince them that everything will be okay if it seems like that isn’t what they need to hear.[3]
    • Some people just want a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, not someone to tell them how to fix things. You need to comfort them with love and support no matter what.
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    Use the right language. Make sure you explicitly state your support of the person so they don’t feel like you are attacking them. Choose your words carefully so that you don’t alienate or upset the person. You want to make them feel safe and comfortable talking to you.[4]
    • Try to avoid the topic of food. Focus on the person and your own feelings instead.
    • Never tell someone that they are looking “healthier.” The individual will only hear that they've gained weight and it could be possibly triggering.
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    Avoid shaming, blaming, or guilting. These kinds of negative statements are just attempts at manipulation on your part. You want them to change their behavior, so it is tempting to try to convince them in whatever way possible. However, these methods won’t work because they have to change for themselves, not for you.[5]
    • Avoid accusatory “you” statements like “you need to eat something” or “you have to stop making yourself sick.” They will not be influenced solely by words if it is a serious eating disorder. This will just upset them and make them feel more frustrated because they will feel that no one understands them.
    • Instead, use “I” statements like “I feel scared when I hear you vomiting” or “I’m concerned about your health.”

Method 2
Choosing the Right Time and Place

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    Choose an environment that will make them feel comfortable. If you want to honestly help the person, you need to approach them at the right time in an appropriate setting. Pick somewhere private that they feel safe in so that they might be more willing to open up to you.[6]
    • Avoid bringing up the conversation in front of other people because it is personal and should be a treated as a private matter.
    • Try bringing it up when you are hanging out at their place just the two of you. They will comfortable and safe in their own home. And if the conversation goes poorly, you can leave and they are already home.
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    Let them initiate. Unless you are scared for their immediate safety, you should try to let the person initiate the conversation. If they bring it up or tell you about it, it usually means that they need help or a friend to talk to. Don't bring it up often because they may not want to talk to you about it.
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    Don’t force the conversation. Never force a person with an eating disorder to talk to you and tell you about everything they feel because talking about something like this can be very difficult. Let them tell you at their own pace and in their own time (unless you are worried about their safety).
    • Sometimes they might explain their feelings in a lot of detail, but their words will be nowhere near how it really feels for them.
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    Know when to act. If you are worried that the person suffering from the eating disorder may be in real danger of self-harm, then you should speak up even if it creates an uncomfortable situation.
    • They may push back against your conversation, but it is important that you continue forward so that you can make your point clear. Tell them that you are worried about them and you want to help.
    • Try saying something like, “I am bringing this up because I am your friend and I am genuinely worried about you. I think you are suffering from an eating disorder and I want to do whatever I can to help you get through this.”

Method 3
Offering Compassion and Support

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    Be a good listener. Speaking sympathetically with someone about eating disorders involves a great deal of active listening. Allow them to tell you what they want to say without any disruptive interjections.
    • Let them know that you are really listening by making eye contact and by giving other verbal and physical cues (nodding your head, offering verbal tokens of agreement, etc.).
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    Look out for their best interest. Don’t abandon them after they’ve discussed their problem with you. You shouldn’t just leave them to get on with it on their own after they have divulged this information. Eating disorders are a very serious thing. [7]
    • Don't go around spreading their secret unless you think they are in serious danger. Respect their privacy and emotions as long as you feel like they aren’t seriously hurting themselves.
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    Be mindful of their sensitivity to situations involving food. Try not to go out to restaurants with the person too much as eating out is often difficult and uncomfortable for someone with an eating disorder.
    • When you take them somewhere, try to consider ahead of time whether or not food will be present and if you think it will trigger them.
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    Be fully supportive. Let the person know that you're there for them, in any aspect, and not just for things relating to the disorder. Tell the person that you are available if they need to talk – whether it is about the eating disorder or anything else in their life.[8]
    • People with eating disorders need to feel loved and supported for them to have a good chance at recovery.
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    Separate the person from the eating disorder. Remember that they are not just an eating disorder. So many times others will treat someone with an eating disorder as if they are simply diseased and no longer functioning. But people with eating disorders are still people, so make sure you treat them that way.[9]
    • When someone is suffering from a condition like this, it can be even more painful when people treat you differently or can’t seem to see past the illness.
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    Encourage them to seek professional help. Eating disorders are diseases that usually need professional help to work through and overcome. It is something that this person will probably deal with for the rest of their life, so it will be good for them to have a support system that includes a medical professional to help them through their recovery.[10]
    • A counselor can help advise the person on methods for treating their eating disorder. They can also give tips on how to get through rough patches or just listen objectively and supportively to the person’s feelings about themselves and their eating disorder.


  • Listen to them and try to understand as much as possible.
  • Make them laugh and spend a lot of time with them.
  • Recommend new books, films, anything. Keep them busy.
  • Don't say you will be there for them, and then abandon them later.


  • Never write off someone because of an eating disorder; it is a disease.
  • Eating disorders are serious. People with eating disorders are in a dark place which no one without one can properly understand. You may need to get help from either a doctor or a counselor if you suffer from one yourself. People can die from eating disorders whether they look as if they have one or not. It starts from the inside and it will soon work its way out.

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Categories: Eating Disorders