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Know A Friend With An Eating Disorder? Here’s How You Can Help, From An Expert

Content warning: This story mentions eating disorders and discussions of weight. With the stress of college, the anxiety of our budding careers, and constant comparison stemming from social media, it’s no stretch to say women in Gen Z are suffering. Mental health and confidence are sharply depleting in this demographic, and eating disorders are on the rise, particularly since the pandemic. These concerns are overrepresented in young women and unfortunately aren’t going away anytime soon.

This harsh reality means we need to be prepared to support ourselves and those around us. When a friend confides in you about any kind of eating disorder, it takes some learning to approach the situation correctly, avoiding any potential to exacerbate the friend’s struggles. Because as much as we think we know what our friend needs to hear, our words can, unfortunately, hurt more than help if we’re not careful.

Plus, in an effort to be empathetic and respectful, we should all learn how to navigate these situations at some point. And it’s always best to take it from an expert — so, I spoke to licensed psychologist David Tzall, in an effort to determine how to best support a friend working through an eating disorder.

Lend them a listening ear, and afterward, educate yourself.

Of course, the most obvious thing to do when your friend tells you they have an eating disorder is to provide them with support in any way you can. Whether that’s acknowledging them for confiding in you, recognizing they’re going through something difficult, or telling them you’re here for them, displaying you’re here for the person will likely be your first (and a correct) instinct.

“When a friend discloses that they have an eating disorder, it’s essential to respond with empathy, care, and support,” Tzall agrees. But he notes that there’s nuance to be aware of. “Make sure you don’t say that you ‘understand’ their struggle, as no one can since that person has their own experience.” This may seem like an innocent statement, but it can actually undermine their struggle, so keep this in mind.

Instead, your role in this situation is to just listen. As much as it may feel like you’re being unhelpful, just hearing them goes a long way. “Validate their feelings and let them know that you’re ready to listen without judgment. Sometimes, simply being there to listen can make a significant difference,” Tzall says. Ultimately, as a friend, your job is to not interrupt, tell them they have your unconditional support, and make them feel heard — which can provide them with the love they need to work through this issue. 

After your initial conversation ends, you’ll probably wonder how you can continue to help them. You definitely don’t want to keep bringing the issue up in conversation, but it’s also awkward to tiptoe around them — so it’s best to treat them with the same love and care you usually do. Plus, if you don’t know how to move forward, don’t be afraid to ask them — something along the lines of “How can I best support you through this?” It’s better to be straight-up than misinformed. 

And what’s more, in order to truly grow your empathy and knowledge about your friend’s issue, you should also do some research. “Take the time to educate yourself about eating disorders, their causes, symptoms, and treatment options,” Tzall recommends. “This will help you better appreciate what your friend is going through and how you can support them.” 

I don’t have to tell you how valuable the Internet can be — so seek out some credible sources and get ready to learn. Because as much as offering your kind words can be helpful, the best way to support someone is to do so with your actions. 

Don’t reassure them about their weight — it’s not as helpful as it seems.

It’s likely conversations surrounding food or weight will come up, especially if you’re close friends with this person. They may also make comments about their weight. But arguably the biggest mistake people make in these situations is saying anything related to the person’s weight or looks — even if it appears reassuring. 

Even something genuinely kind, like “You look beautiful the way you are” focuses too much attention on appearances — so when the conversation comes up, respond by changing your thinking and the conversation. “Instead of reassuring them about their weight or appearance, focus on their positive qualities, strengths, or accomplishments unrelated to physical appearance. Shifting the conversation to more positive aspects can help redirect their attention away from negative body image concerns,” Tzall says. 

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He recommends saying something along the lines of, “I hear that you’re feeling concerned about your weight, but I want you to know that I value you for who you are as a person, not just how you look.” This appropriately acknowledges their sentiments, and proceeds to transition the conversation to become more meaningful.

In general, in order to help your friend feel loved and take attention off of their eating disorder, don’t make any comments about their eating habits or participate in conversations about dieting or weight. It may seem tempting to reassure them, but believe me, it’s best to leave that conversation alone.

Remind your friend that they’re more than their weight by telling them why you love them.

Essentially, your job here is to practice something you should already be doing as a friend:  providing them with positive reinforcement to help them appreciate themselves as you do. But specifically, do so without talking about their weight.

Realistically, there are a lot more important, deeper aspects about a person than their body — like the accomplishments they used their wit, skill, and hard work to achieve, or their honorable personality traits. Telling them why you love them will lift them up, encourage them, and build their confidence, without directly pointing a finger toward their struggle.

“Encourage them to focus on their inner qualities, talents, and achievements rather than external appearance,” Tzall advises. “Supporting a friend with an eating disorder involves a delicate balance of empathy, compassion, and maintaining boundaries.” So, tread lightly around any eating- or weight-related topics.

At the end of the day, you’re being a good friend just by reading this article — because you’re making a conscious effort to help them. Sadly, it’s something a lot of people don’t do, whether due to ignorance or self-interest. All it takes is some more education, thoughtfulness, and TLC.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.

Abby is a National Writer for Her Campus and the Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus at Waterloo. As part of the Wellness team, she covers topics related to mental health and relationships, but also frequently writes about digital trends, career advice, current events, and more. In her articles, she loves solving online debates, connecting with experts, and reflecting on her own experiences. She is also passionate about spreading the word about important cultural issues such as climate change and women’s rights; these are topics she frequently discusses in her articles. Abby began producing digital content at BuzzFeed, where she now has over 300 posts and 60 million overall views. Since then, she has also written for various online publications such as Thought Catalog, Collective World, and Unpacked. In addition to writing, Abby is also a UX and content designer; she most frequently spends her days building innovative, creative digital experiences. She has other professional experiences ranging from marketing to graphic design. When she’s not writing, Abby can be found reading the newest Taylor Jenkins Reid book, watching The Office, or eating pizza. She’s also been a dancer since she was four years old, and has most recently become obsessed with taking spin classes.