Identifying and Supporting Someone with an Eating Disorder

Humans come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Eating disorders are no different, they come in many different forms.

Many of us feel like we could be a bit slimmer, maybe we even struggle to put on weight. We certainly aren’t alone in this and we can probably relate to these feelings an awful lot but that doesn’t mean we all have eating disorders.

When our relationship with the food we eat, our weight or how we look changes so dramatically that it’s controlling our lives and negatively affecting our health then we could be experiencing mental illness in the form of an Eating Disorder.

It’s a common misconception that if you have an eating disorder, you simply avoid food, but that isn’t always the case.

An Eating Disorder can be categorised in a multitude of ways, yes, limiting your food intake is a sign but you could also be eating excessive amounts in one sitting or getting food out of your system in unhealthy ways like purging (vomiting) or using laxatives.

Identifying an Eating Disorder

Its important to understand that when identifying the early signs of a mental illness, we are looking for changes in behaviours or changes physically. We are all different shapes and sizes, which is completely normal, so we shouldn’t make assumptions about someone’s natural body type and we certainly shouldn’t be diagnosing without the help of professionals, but we should be aware of these changes in case someone might need some support.

These behavioural or physical changes may include;

  • Excessively worrying about your weight and/or body shape
  • Avoiding social situations that may involve food
  • Eating very little or skipping meals
  • Eating a large amount of food in one sitting
  • Purposefully being sick (purging) or taking laxatives after food so toilet visits may increase after eating
  • Being extremely strict or having rituals with food.
  • Exercising excessively

How to Support Someone

It is difficult to support someone who may be experiencing an Eating Disorder however, there is still a lot that you can do.

In order to approach the subject appropriately, you can read our guidance around this here.

Encourage Them to Avoid Isolating Themselves

Any mental illness can be really isolating, Eating Disorders are no exception. The person going through this experience may be avoiding particular social situations that involve food.

It can be difficult, and you shouldn’t force them but try to encourage them to keep social.

Start out small, maybe something that doesn’t involve food at all and build up slowly over time, so they become more comfortable as time goes on throughout their recovery.

Develop Your Own Understanding of Eating Disorders

Try not to immediately assume someone has an Eating Disorder as we don’t want to develop pre-conceptions, but, if someone has that diagnosis or its been identified by a professional that they are experiencing something similar, try to understand more about how it affects them by talking to them about it in a safe, comfortable place as everyone is unique. You can investigate the illness specifically but focus on credible sources like the NHS for your information.

Let them talk about their experience with you and try to keep the focus on them, not having a conversation about food but how they are feeling; how it’s affecting them rather than their relationship with food.

With eating disorders, or any mental illness, it can become very solitary and almost shameful so we try our best to hide what we are experiencing, understanding that people care and are concerned for us can initially be difficult but can help us on the road to recovery. So, be honest with them about your concerns. Helping someone see things from your point of view might help to understand the impact their experiences are having on them.

Share Structured, Social Meals

An easy way to support someone with an eating disorder is to ensure what they’re eating is nutritious, balanced and healthy. If you share meals, make sure that the portion sizes are correct, the meals include vegetables and they aren’t over-facing. If the meals are suitable, it will help them feel more comfortable eating them.

We can fall into the trap of sticking something on the TV and eating in silence, but this can be quite unhelpful for someone experiencing these symptoms. They may be having a variety of thoughts surrounding their food so if you can eat whilst having an engaging non-food related conversation, this will help to keep them focussed on you rather than their food and thoughts.

Try to arrange enjoyable things to do after eating. Whether it’s a walk, watching a movie or going out, it can help to have something planned following meals to help as a distraction from the urge to fall into the habits of taking laxatives or purging after food. The thought process around eating may also be quite distressing so doing something enjoyable may help to improve their mood.

Don’t Rush, It Takes Time

If you aren’t or have never experienced these symptoms, it may be difficult to understand the extent of what someone is going through and may, at times, be easy to assume certain things will be okay but the person with the eating disorder might not be ready.

Recovery takes time, so let them take the lead on this and encourage them through it. Rushing into new things may set things back slightly so keep an open mind and allow them to build on their routine rather than making suggestions they may be uncomfortable with.

Keep Support Consistent, Even If Professionals are Involved

Professional help is the best thing and it may take a little time to obtain so it’s important to remain consistent with your support whilst this is going on. Typically, professional support requires you to remain focussed on your recovery throughout the week rather than just in set appointments.

Following each session, it could be a good idea to discuss the session without questioning the specific, confidential aspects. Using open questions, ask how it went, if there is any ‘homework’ or specific things they have been asked to focus on that you could support them with.

This will show them that you’re there for them, that you can help them with their recovery, and they aren’t doing it alone.

First Steps

If you or someone who know may be experiencing these symptoms, it is certainly worth discussing it with your GP, they will be best placed to help you understand what support is available locally.

Reach out to the people around you. It may be a scary concept for people to know about it but with over 1.6 million people affected by Eating Disorders in the UK, they are much more common than people think!

There is a brilliant Charity that you could speak to in confidence whether you would like to talk about what you’re experiencing personally or if you’re concerned about someone you know. They are called Beat and you can speak to an experienced adviser by calling their adult helpline on 0808 801 0677 or youth helpline on 0808 801 0711. For more information, visit https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/