Helping Someone That Has an Eating Disorder

Family members are sometimes among the last people to know when a loved one suffers from an eating disorder. Often, eating disorders develop gradually and the changes in a person’s body are either not obvious or happen so slowly that parents and siblings do not notice the difference.

People with eating disorders also learn to hide their illnesses, making detection even more difficult. Family members who suspect their loved one has an eating disorder have several treatment options available to help them regain good mental and physical health.

What Are They?

Eating disorders are mental illnesses, according to the American Psychiatric Association, and they be more likely to occur in people who have other mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression. There are different types of eating disorders, including:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Bulimia nervosa

Someone who has anorexia nervosa becomes obsessed with their body image and losing weight. The person develops unhealthy eating habits that focus on a severely low intake of calories and nutrition. A person who has bulimia nervosa secretly binges, which is eating a large amount of food in a short time frame, and then uses some means to purge the food, such as diuretics, laxatives, or self-induced vomiting.

Someone with bulimia is usually an average weight or even slightly overweight, making it difficult for some family members to realize that something is wrong. Someone who has binge eating disorder often eats large amounts of food, similar to someone with bulimia, but they do not purge after eating. This person may suffer from obesity as a result of the excessive food intake.

Woman thinking

Who Is Most Likely to Get One?

People may develop eating disorders at any age, even as young children. As many as 7% of American females exhibit bulimic behaviors at some point in life, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Patients who have anorexia often develop the disorder after they go through puberty; the average age for onset is 17.

7% of females in the U.S. exhibit bulimic behaviors at some point.

Eating disorders affect both males and females, although the signs sometimes present in different ways: Female patients tend to focus on losing weight, while males usually concentrate on increasing muscle mass.

Recognizing the Need for Help

Some signs, such as rapid weight loss, may be a more visual sign of an eating disorder, while other symptoms can be harder to recognize. For instance, if your loved one starts to avoid eating with the family or in public, or if they participate in extreme workout regimens, or insist on exercising regardless of illness or bad weather, you may be right to be worried. Also, people with bulimia sometimes have fluid retention or marks on their hands caused by induced vomiting.

Outpatient Treatment vs. Inpatient Treatment

Once a doctor diagnoses your family member with an eating disorder, a treatment plan is developed based on their medical stability. Patients who are not at a safe weight—often those with anorexia—usually must enter an inpatient treatment program where caloric intake is controlled. Patients who do not need around-the-clock inpatient care may benefit from intensive outpatient programs (IOP) that monitor them for several hours in the daytime or evening. It’s important to have a strong support system in place if you are undergoing outpatient care.

Patients who are treated at residential facilities or through outpatient programs sometimes take medication to assist in their recovery. Because eating disorders often are associated with other types of mental illnesses, antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications are often prescribed to address those issues. As a matter of course, medication should only be taken under the supervision of a medical professional.


Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common method of psychotherapy for treating eating disorders, according to NEDA, which usually involves three phases. During the first phase, patients learn about the damage that results from eating disorders. The second phase focuses on learning to engage in healthy eating habits, and the final phase concentrates on strategies to avoid a relapse.

Mental illness

Family Therapy

Everyone in a family is affected when a loved one has an eating disorder. Psychotherapy is available for family members who wish to learn how to communicate and interact with someone who suffers from an eating disorder, as well as to address any distress they are experiencing as a result of their loved one’s illness. Family members also may participate in mealtime therapy, where patients learn to eat healthy meals in a calm setting.

The Maudsley Approach is an outpatient program for patients who are under their parents’ care. This method is a 3-step program that starts by increasing parental control of the child’s eating patterns. Once the child is able to make healthy eating choices independently, the program focuses on addressing future development, which may be impaired due to the effects of the eating disorder. This method of treatment lasts about a year, according to the Maudsley Parents organization.

Recovery Timeline

Patients who have anorexia and are medically stable enough for outpatient treatment should plan on attending regularly for at least 6 months, according to NEDA. Patients who must be hospitalized to stabilize their weight should participate in therapy and monitoring for at least a year following their release from the hospital, according to the Association. People with bulimia usually participate in therapy for a minimum of 5 months.

Eating disorders may remain hidden for some time, and, once discovered, the road to recovery is lengthy. People with eating disorders benefit from the love and support of family members as they complete treatment and return to a healthy lifestyle.

Recovery and Relapse

People with bulimia are more likely to experience a full recovery than those with anorexia, according to a long-term study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The study reviews the records of patients for 7.5 years after their diagnoses. One-third of patients with anorexia are fully recovered at the 7.5-year mark, while nearly three-quarters of patients with bulimia are fully recovered. A high suicide rate is also associated with people with bulimia, according to NEDA.

Last Update | 03 - 7 - 2014

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