Supporting a Family Member or Friend
This handout will help you support a family
member or friend who has an eating
disorder. It will help you know more about
this disease and how you can best deal with
it. If you have any questions or concerns
about eating disorders, please call the
numbers listed at the end of this handout.
What are common eating disorders and
how can I recognize them?
Those with anorexia have a focus on weight
loss that doesn’t seem to make sense. They
have a very unreal image of their own
bodies. They struggle with trying to diet to
achieve what they consider to be ideal
figures, even when they may be below their
healthy weight. Signs present include:
ξ Feeling fat when in fact, the person
is very under their healthy weight
ξ Strict dieting
ξ Extreme exercising
ξ Loss of menstrual periods in females
ξ Changes in mood and/or
ξ Preoccupation with thoughts of food
Persons with bulimia have problems with
binge eating. They have little sense of
control over their urges to overeat. These
binges are often followed by fear, an intense
feeling of lack of control, and anger that is
most often directed inward. In bulimia,
binge eating is followed by some way to rid
the body of the foods that were eaten.
ξ Laxative, diet pill, or diuretic use
ξ Eating extreme amounts of food in a
brief period of time
ξ Self-induced vomiting
ξ Obsessive concerns about weight and
ξ Choosing to restrict food at times
ξ Extreme exercising
ξ Focus on food, depression and
Those who compulsively overeat eat large
amounts of food do not have a sense of
control over their urges to overeat. Eating is
often a way to soothe or nurture themselves.
ξ The person is over their healthy
ξ There is a focus on food
ξ The person may choose to be alone
or to avoid others
ξ A feeling of lack of control
What Causes an Eating Disorder?
The causes of eating disorders are complex
and may include some or all of the items
ξ Biochemical imbalances in the brain
ξ Social or cultural influences to
achieve an expected body image
ξ Perfectionism, fear of rejection,
loneliness, low self-esteem, and not
being able to recognize and/or
express one's feelings
ξ Family struggles or conflicts
ξ Being involved in high risk sports or
work such as gymnastics, dancing,
and wrestling or modeling.
ξ Major stressors or life changes such
as family discord, death of a parent
or loved one, a broken love
relationship, ridicule, or abuse by
What Can Be Done?
Prompt treatment is vital. A number of
techniques have worked well for treating
eating disorders. Often there is more
success using more than one form of
treatment. Some of these treatments are:
ξ One on one work with a therapist.
The therapist will help ease anxiety
and depression, and help promote
assertiveness and independence.
ξ Family therapy
ξ Group therapy to help gain insights
and exchange ideas and support each
ξ Drug therapy to help ease depression
ξ Nutritional and general education to
challenge unhealthy food myths, and
construct and support a healthy
ξ Fixing medical problems when they
ξ Behavioral therapy
How Can I Help?
1. Show respect for the person. We all
have our strong and weak points. To
show respect, allow that person to
express their values, ideas, and standards
even if they are not like your own. Do
not impose your own values, ideas, or
standards. It is very helpful that you
allow growth and support self-respect
and allow them to make their own
2. Share how you have grown and changed
over the years. Tell how you plan and
act to reach goals for yourself. Let the
person know that growth and learning is
often achieved through making mistakes.
3. Notice when they have achieved a goal.
Praise their efforts.
4. Encourage self-acceptance and self-love.
5. Support the person's feeling of self-
control. Keep in mind everyone has
needs for privacy. Going through rooms,
reading letters, journals, or diaries
without their consent violates trust. You
sustain a vital role when you keep trust
6. Do not talk about how the person looks.
Avoid talking about being slender as
7. Have a mixture of healthy foods on
hand. Set a good example for healthy
eating. Eat in a relaxed manner without
talking about how much food is eaten,
calories, or weight.
8. Join in fun activities with the person.
You may help increase the person’s
sense of well-being by doing things
together such as biking, swimming,
hiking, movies, or trips to art displays,
libraries, or museums.
9. Make time to talk and to listen. These
are always helpful ways to promote
healthy relationships. Do not talk about
your problems with your marriage,
finances or work. Instead talk about
these with another person or
10. Avoid the urge to try to manage the
eating disorder or symptoms and food
choices. Your urge to manage may be
strong at times. Learn to recognize the
results of such efforts as well as the
positive effects of the person with the
eating disorder managing their own
What Can I Do for Myself?
1. Do not criticize or blame yourself or
others. Notice and praise what is good.
Highlight the positive.
2. Direct your questions to health care
3. Avoid the stress of a struggle over eating
disorder symptoms. Seek support from
the health care staff treating the problem.
4. You may find family therapy and support
groups ease your own worries and help
you grow as a person.
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright © 11/2016 University of Wisconsin Hospitals
and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#4470.