How to approach someone you suspect of an eating disorder

Posted on: July 21st, 2012 by Dr. Adam Friedman

It seems like most articles written about eating disorders deal with the warning signs to look for in a friend or loved one. However, just as important as recognizing the symptoms is how to express your concern. To best understand how to approach a person who may be suffering for anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive overeating, it is important to understand the nature of the disorder.
In the majority of cases, the eating disordered patient has gone to great lengths to hide their symptoms from the people they are close to. Many times he or she will stop eating in front of other people and make any excuse to avoid anyone who they feel may be growing aware of their eating disordered behaviors. These actions stem from feelings of guilt and shame about the eating disorder. Thus, it is imperative that you approach the subject with great care. For example, bringing up your concerns during mealtime or in front of others will almost assuredly cause the person to react defensively or to deny altogether any difficulty. Also, talking strictly about food is likely to trigger defensiveness in the eating disordered person.

A better way to increase the likelihood of an honest discussion is to talk to the person alone, and in between mealtimes. In the beginning, you will want to talk less about specific behaviors and more about feelings (you don’t seem yourself, you seem very anxious about food lately, you are so distant lately are you ok). Don’t confront, don’t accuse, and give your friend or loved one space to respond. Understand that they may not fully understand their behaviors themselves and may not be able to express themselves at that moment. More than anything express to them that you are there for them whenever they want help. Realize that the goal is not to “out” the person as an eating disorder sufferer but to create an atmosphere of acceptance and support. Lastly, don’t have expectations that things will be resolved in one talk but rather understand that it is the first step in a long process.

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