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Eating problems

Learn about eating problems, including possible causes, symptoms and how to access treatment and support. Includes self-care tips for helping yourself, plus guidance for friends and family.

This page is for family and friends who want to support someone with an eating problem.

How to help someone with an eating problem

You can do lots of things to help, despite how helpless you might sometimes feel.

You may experience difficult feelings if someone you care about has an eating problem. You might:

  • feel very worried about the person
  • find it hard to know how to talk to them about it
  • find it difficult to know how to deal with changes in their mood
  • have tried to offer support, but found that they're unwilling or unable to accept help. 

This can make you feel powerless, frustrated and angry.

First steps towards support

At first, you might just want to show the person you're here for them and you support them.

Try to be considerate of the following:

  • Let them know you are there. Make sure the person knows you’re here to listen and can help them find support. This is one of the most important things you can do. Let them know they can talk to you when they're ready.
  • Try not to get angry or frustrated. They might already feel guilty about how their behaviour is affecting you. Try to be as understanding and patient as you can.
  • Don't make assumptions. Try not to interpret what their eating problem means without listening to them. This could add to their feelings of helplessness. It could also make them less able to share their difficult emotions and seek support.

Avoiding common assumptions

Many of us assume that eating problems are linked to certain behaviours, or physical traits.

You might assume that:

  • eating problems are mainly about body image
  • you can tell what eating problems someone has from their appearance
  • young women are the only group who experience eating problems.

But none of these assumptions are true.

Anyone can experience eating problems. This is regardless of age, gender, weight or background.

"People never seem to understand what it is. I've had it said that I'm 'scared of food', or that it's not really a disorder – that I'm 'just being fussy' – both of which really trivialise how it feels for me."

For people with eating problems, dealing with misconceptions is a difficult part of the experience. To help the person you care about, try not to make assumptions or judgements.

...but you look fine to me?

"People often look me up and down, with puzzled expressions on their faces, before announcing, 'well, you don't look ill to me'."

Learning how to understand their feelings

You might be finding it hard to understand the person's eating problem. This can also make it hard to be accepting towards how they might feel. Or how your attitude or behaviour might make them feel.

Try thinking about the following:

  • Be patient with them. Remember that their own acceptance of the problem can take time. It can take a long time for them to accept it and seek help. They might not see their eating as a problem. They could see it as a solution to cope with certain feelings. For example rage, loss, powerlessness, self-hatred, worthlessness, guilt, or feeling like they have no control. They may be scared about what recovery means for them and their body.
  • Be gentle with them. You can't force someone to change their behaviour. You might try hard to persuade, trick or force someone into eating more or less. This could make them feel even more anxious and fearful about food. It could also make them withdraw from you. They might try harder to convince you they're eating more healthily, even if they're not.
  • Don't focus or comment on their appearance. Remember that someone's weight or appearance doesn't tell you how they're feeling inside. With some comments such as "you look well", you think you're being kind. But they can trigger very difficult feelings for someone who has an eating problem. The eating problem charity Beat has more information on how to talk to someone with eating problems.

"She would drive to my sixth form college everyday to help me eat. She wouldn't push me or tell me to eat, she would just sit there patiently and be with me at that difficult time in the day. She would also be with me as I had panic attacks after meals."

Practical ways you can help

As well as developing your own understanding, these practical ideas can help the person you're worried about.

You could try the following:

  • Include them in social activities. If they find it difficult to eat, arrange activities which don’t involve food. You could watch a film, play a game or take a walk.
  • Keep meal times as stress-free as possible. Don't comment on their food choices. Let them get on with eating the food they feel able to eat.
  • Find safe ways to talk about it. Some people find it helps to refer to the eating problems in the third person. Try saying things like "that's not you, that's the eating problem speaking".
  • Help them find good information and avoid bad sources. This could mean looking for reliable facts and trusted online support. It also means helping them avoid places online that may promote unsafe eating and exercise habits.
  • Share stories from other people. It can be really helpful to read stories and accounts by people with eating problems. Especially those who are ready to think about recovery. You can find some by looking in the 'Eating problems' category of the Mind blogs and stories. You can find more stories and blogs at Beat.
  • Encourage them to seek professional help. If they are worried about talking to their doctor, you could offer to go along with them. See our page on treatment and support for more information. Our useful contacts for eating problems lists charities and other organisations they can contact.

Family therapy for eating problems

If the person is a member of your family, you might attend family therapy as part of their treatment.

Family therapy means working as a family to:

  • explore what might have prompted the underlying feelings
  • better understand everyone's emotions and needs
  • find ways to move forward together and support the person.

You can find a family therapist by asking your GP or hospital doctor for a referral. You can also look for a therapist via the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice.

If family therapy isn't right for you (or isn't available), it can still help to discuss what is happening with your family.

Tips for your own wellbeing

It's important that you manage your own wellbeing while supporting your friend or family member. Try to do the following if you can:

  • Remember that recovery can be a long process. While their body might look healthier quickly, they may be finding things hard emotionally. Relapses are common and don't feel very encouraging. It helps to accept this as part of the process. Don't blame them, yourself or anyone else.
  • Try to be kind to yourself. Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be upsetting and exhausting. It's important to remember that your mental health is important too, and you deserve support for yourself as well. For for information, see our pages on how to cope when supporting someone else and helping someone seek help.
  • Seek support from specialist organisations. Depending on your relationship to the person, there may be dedicated support options. You might find it helpful to look into the Young Minds Parents Helpline and Beat's Support for Carers.

Mental illness, my Dad and me

"It was a huge sacrifice on my Dad’s part as he gave up a lot of aspects of his life."

This information was published in January 2021. We will revise it in 2024.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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