for better mental health

Eating problems

Explains eating problems, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

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

You may feel very worried if you think that someone you care about has an eating problem. It may feel difficult to know how to talk to them about it or how to deal with their changes in mood. You might have already tried to offer support, but found that the person you're worried about is unwilling or unable to accept help. This can make you feel powerless, frustrated and angry.

In fact there are lots of helpful things you can do:

  • Let them know you are there. One of the most important things you can do is let the person you're worried about know that you're there, you're listening and that you can help them find support. Let the person know they can talk to you when they are ready.
  • Try not to get angry with them. They will probably already be feeling guilty about how their behaviour is affecting you. Try to stay as empathetic and patient as possible.
  • Don't make assumptions. People sometimes assume that eating problems are mainly about body image, or that you can tell what eating problems someone has from their appearance. But this not true. And if you interpret someone's eating problems in a particular way – without really listening to the person themselves – it could add to their feelings of helplessness. It could also make them less able to share their difficult emotions and seek support.

"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."

  • Remember that even accepting they have a problem takes time. Be patient. It can take a long time for someone to accept they have a problem and to seek help. The person you're worried about might not see their eating as a problem. They may actually view it as a solution to coping with feelings of 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.
  • Don't focus or comment on their appearance. Remember that someone's weight or appearance doesn't tell you how they're feeling inside. Even comments that are meant kindly such as "you look well" can often trigger very difficult feelings for someone who has an eating problem. Try asking "how are you?" instead. The eating disorder charity b-eat has more information on how to talk to someone with eating problems.
  • Be gentle – you can't force someone to change their behaviour. Trying hard to persuade, trick or force someone into eating more or less could make them feel even more anxious and fearful about food. This could make them withdraw from you or try harder to convince you they are eating more healthily even if they are not.

"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."

  • Include the person in social activities. If the person you are worried about finds it difficult to eat, organise activities which don't involve food.
  • Make meal times as stress free as possible. Don't comment on their food choices. Let them get on and eat the food they do feel able to eat.
  • Find safe ways to talk about it. Some people say it helps to refer to the eating problems in the third person, for example "that's not you, that's the eating problem speaking".
  • Help them find good information, and avoid bad information. This could include looking for online support while helping the person avoid websites or forums that could promote unsafe eating and exercise habits. It can also be really helpful to read stories and accounts written by people with eating problems who are ready to think about recovery, such as those included in our pages on eating problems. B-eat also has blog posts and a community.
  • Encourage them to seek professional help. See our page on treatment and support for information on available treatments. If they are worried about talking to their doctor, you could offer to go along with them.
  • Accept that recovery is a long process. Remember that while their body might look healthier quickly, they may actually be finding things a lot harder emotionally. Relapses are common and can be very demoralising, but you can help by accepting this as part of the process and being there for them when they're finding things tough.
  • Look after 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. See our pages on how to cope when supporting someone else and helping someone seek help for more information and tips.

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."

Family therapy

If the person you're worried about is a member of your family, you may want to consider family therapy. Family therapy is about working as a family towards greater awareness of everyone's emotions and needs, and finding ways to move forward together – it isn't about blame.

You can find a family therapist by asking your GP for a referral, or looking for a therapist through the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice website. Even if family therapy isn't right for you (or isn't available), it can help to have conversations with the family about what is happening. Siblings may find it difficult to understand what is going on.

This information was published in June 2017. We will revise it in 2020.

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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