How to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia spelled out in block letters
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

How to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that can have serious physical and psychological consequences. While eating disorders affect people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, it is more common in women between the ages of 12 to 25.

Early recognition and intervention are crucial for successful treatment. In this article, we will explore the different types of eating disorders and their warning signs, risk factors, effective treatment methods, and strategies for supporting loved ones who are struggling with an eating disorder.

What are the most common types of eating disorders?

The most common type of eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder (BED).

Anorexia Nervosa (Anorexia)

People with anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. Even if they may be dangerously thin, they see something completely different in the mirror. They restrict their food intake severely, often consuming very few calories, and suffer from significant weight loss and malnutrition. Many individuals with anorexia engage also in obsessive behaviors related to food such as counting calories, weighing food, and frequently weighing themselves.

Bulimia Nervosa (Bulimia)

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, excessive exercise, fasting, or use of other medications. During their episodes of binge-eating, individuals feel a lack of control over their eating. Individuals with bulimia often maintain a relatively normal weight, making it harder to detect.

Binge-Eating Disorder (BED)

Binge-eating disorder, similar to bulimia, also involves recurrent episodes of uncontrollable eating, where individuals consume large quantities of food in a short period. During these episodes, they tend to eat more rapidly than normal, eat until uncomfortably full, and will eat large amounts of food even though they are not physically hungry. Unlike bulimia however, there are no compensatory behaviors like purging or fasting.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED)

OSFED is a category used to diagnose eating disorders that do not meet the specific criteria for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder but still cause significant distress or impairment. For example, individuals who meet all the criteria for binge eating disorder but the episodes may occur less frequently than the threshold for diagnosis would fall in this category. 

What are the warning signs?

The warning signs differ between the three most common types of eating disorders: 

Physical and behavioral warning signs for anorexia include: 

– Significant weight loss without a medical explanation
– A gaunt or extremely thin appearance 
– Fatigue, persistent tiredness, lack of energy
– Dizziness or fainting 
– Cold intolerance, frequently feeling cold 
– Hair and skin changes where hair and nails are dry and brittle and skin has a yellowish tint
– Menstrual irregularities 
– Skipping meals and making excuses to avoid eating or saying they have already eaten
– Restrictive eating with drastically reduced food intake, avoiding certain food groups
– Frequent weighing and obsessing over scales
– Wearing baggy clothes to hide weight loss

Physical and behavioral warning signs for bulimia include:

 – Dental issues such as erosion of tooth enamel, increased cavities, and sensitivity due to stomach acid from vomiting
– Chronic sore throat, hoarseness, or irritation from frequent vomiting
– Noticeable changes in weight, often within or slightly above the normal range
– Swollen cheeks or jaw area due to frequent vomiting
– Frequent trips to the bathroom, especially after meals
– Eating in secret and hiding food to avoid detection
– Unexplained disappearance of large quantities of food due to binge-eating, or finding hidden stashes of food
– Avoiding eating in public
– Excessive, compulsive need for exercise often for long periods 

Physical and behavioral warning signs for binge-eating disorder include: 

– Rapid and significant weight gain over a short period – Gastrointestinal issues such as chronic stomach pain, bloating, constipation or other digestive problems
– High blood pressure due to weight gain
– Fatigue and lack of energy due to overeating and poor nutrition
– Unexplained disappearance of large quantities of food due to binge-eating, or finding hidden stashes of food
– Eating in isolation due to embarrassment or shame about the amount of food being consumed 
– Skipping meals or engaging in erratic eating behaviors in attempt to control weight
– Eating large amounts of food, more than normal, in a discrete periods

What are the risk factors for developing an eating disorder?

There are several risk factors biological factors for developing an eating disorder such as: 

Family History

Someone is more likely to develop an eating disorder if a close family member (parent, sibling), has had an eating disorder or other mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.

Neurobiological Factors

Imbalances in brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as serotonin, which regulate mood, appetite and stress, may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. 

Psychological Factors

If an individual has a tendency to set extremely high standards for oneself and be overly critical, they may become susceptible to an eating disorder.

Those with obsessive-compulsive traits – especially a propensity for rigid thinking and a need for control, may also have a higher likelihood for an eating disorder.

Finally, those who have difficulty controlling impulses can become susceptible to binge-eating disorder. 

Environmental and Sociocultural Factors

Societal emphasis on thinness and the idealization of a particular body type, often perpetuated by the media, can lead to body dissatisfaction and unhealthy eating behaviors.

Young people, the age group at highest risk of eating disorders, are more susceptible to influence from friends or peers to conform to certain body standards or engage in dieting and weight control behaviors. Early dieting and engagement in weight control behaviors can increase the risk of developing eating disorders.

Stressful life events or transitions such as leaving home to go to college, relationship breakups, and other major life changes can trigger disordered eating.

Professions or activities that emphasize weight and appearance, such as modeling, athletics, dancing, and acting, can increase the risk.

What are some treatment methods you would typically recommend to those suffering from an eating disorder? 

As mentioned previously, early recognition and intervention is crucial for successful treatment. Effective and evidence-based treatments are available in various forms:

Medical Management

If someone is suffering from severe malnutrition or medical complications from their eating disorder, stabilizing their physical health is crucial. This may involve hospitalization, nutritional rehabilitation, and monitoring by healthcare professionals. 


Various forms of therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or family-based therapy can help address the underlying psychological factor contributing to the eating disorder. It helps individuals suffering from an eating disorder to recognize and change distorted perceptions about self and their relationship with food.


In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage co-existing conditions such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Nutritional Counseling

This type of counseling is typically provided by registered dieticians or nutritionists who are trained in dealing with eating disorders. They can help individuals restore healthy eating patterns, dispel myths and misconceptions about food, improve nutritional status, and address the psychological and behavioral aspects of eating. 

How can we support loved ones suffering from an eating disorder?

Create a supportive environment during mealtimes

Make mealtimes as comfortable and stress-free as possible. Plan ahead with your loved one what time you will be eating together, what will be served for the meal, and who else will be sharing the meal to reduce any anxiety. Avoid discussing weight, food, or body image during meals. Instead, focus on positive topics to distract from anxiety.

Respecting their eating pace

Allow the person to eat at their own pace without any pressure or judgment. Avoid comments such as “you should eat more” or “you’re eating too fast.” Let them take breaks if needed.

Provide healthy choices

Provide a variety of nutritious foods without making it a focal point – offer options that cater to their preferences while ensuring a balanced diet. Refrain from criticizing or commenting on their food choices; otherwise this can increase anxiety and exacerbate this disorder.

Avoid judgment and stigma

The last thing they need is judgmental attitudes or stigmatizing language regarding their eating disorder. Instead, offer unconditional love, acceptance, and support. Have conversations with them with compassion to see how you can make their meal times less stressful and how you can support them.

Challenge Distorted Beliefs with Truth

Help them challenge distorted beliefs about body image, worth, and identity with the Gospel. Remind them of their identity as beloved children of God and that their true worth comes from their relationship with Him, not from external appearances.

Seek professional help

An eating disorder is a serious mental health illness and can have serious consequences on health including nutritional deficiencies, dental issues, and a compromised immune system. Untreated eating disorders can even be life-threatening as the body is not getting the required nutrients. Therefore, we strongly encourage you seek professional help if you or your child is suffering from an eating disorder. 

Always remember that God has intentionally designed each individual with care and purpose

Not only this, we were created in Christ Jesus – our identity, purpose, and significance are perfected in Christ through faith. 

What God created, he sees as perfect and wonderful even if I can’t see that in myself. 

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” ‭‭Psalms‬ ‭139‬:‭13‬-‭14‬ ‭NIV‬‬

We are reminded in Ephesians 2:10 (NIV) which says: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Enjoyed our blogpost? Subscribe to our newsletter for more resources on mental health and integrating the Gospel message in your healing journey. 

If you found our resources useful, please consider donating to Oak Health Foundation, which is a 501(3)c nonprofit dedicated to providing resources regarding holistic mental healthcare and subsidized treatment for those in need.

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