The number of people with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder has risen since the start of the pandemic. In April 2021, eating disorders charity Beat confirmed to HuffPost UK a 302% rise in demand for helpline services since the first lockdown in March 2020.
Eating disorder recovery is different for each and every person affected, but there are a variety of well-evidenced treatment options available to address the thinking patterns, emotional challenges and behaviours associated with these conditions.
While it's essential that anyone with an eating disorder seeks professional clinical help, there are certain things friends and family can do to help someone suffering with eating difficulties. Here are a few tips from our clinical psychologist, Dr Charlie Baily to help someone struggling with the symptoms of an eating disorder.
It’s important to help people with eating disorders return to a more normal, helpful pattern of eating. Friends, family or flatmates can support by steering clear of discussions about diet or ‘what’s healthy or not healthy’. When eating together, the focus should be on the shared social experience, not the nutritional content of the meal.
While often challenging for people with eating difficulties, being invited out for food as part of a celebration or other social occasion can reinforce the fact that eating is about much more than calories consumed and the weight gained or lost.
People with disordered eating sometimes lose touch with their normal hunger and fullness cues. Again, eating on a regular schedule, sharing meals with others and using standard portion sizes (e.g., as served by others and eating pre-prepared and restaurant-served meals in full) until the physiological signals are re-established can really help.
Try not to comment on their weight or size at all – even if it’s meant to be complimentary – because these types of comments are often interpreted negatively. Saying, “You’re looking so healthy” can be interpreted as “You’re fat”, even though this was not the intended message.
Being heard is so important. Sit down with the person, try to help them externalise their illness (e.g., by asking questions like “How is the eating disorder making you feel?”), and ask them to share what they’re experiencing (so long as they’re comfortable doing so). Also ask them about the other things causing stress in their life. These simple steps can reduce any stigma concerns, help them feel less alone and provide encouragement to seek further help.
Through therapy or self-help resources, new strategies can be taught to cope with distressing emotional states in more adaptive ways. For more advice, google “mindfulness”, or see our blog about the coping with anxiety within the body or relaxation techniques.
While it can feel daunting, the act of opening up to family and friends can be invaluable. Support groups, both online and offline, can help anyone struggling with an eating disorder to link up with other people with lived experience of what they’re facing. Secrecy and shame around eating disorders only perpetuate and reinforce them.
If you are supporting someone with disordered eating, remain encouraging, offer your support and remember to attend to your own needs too. Encourage them to reach out for expert advice and support. Eating disorders charity, BEAT has a list of accessible support from helplines and web chat to downloadable guides.
When you are suffering with an eating disorder, having the support of a professional team can make a big difference. If you’re supporting someone, encourage them to share their symptoms with a GP so they can monitor their overall health.
A psychologist can address the cognitive and emotional patterns underlying and maintain disordered eating, while a dietician can help establish a meal plan tailored to their needs.
Early detection, initial evaluation, and effective treatment are important steps that can help someone with an eating disorder move into recovery more quickly, preventing the disorder from progressing to a more severe or chronic state.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, our online tests can be a good way of identifying whether particular habits and behaviours might be a sign of disordered eating. Also don’t hesitate to speak with your GP, explore the resources listed above on the BEAT website, or call our assistant psychologists who can talk you through options for assessment and treatment.
0203 326 9160