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How to talk to someone you think might have an eating disorder

30th April 2015
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The experts at Beat, the UK’s Eating Disorder Charity, specialise in supporting anyone affected by eating disorders or difficulties with food, diet or body image. Part of that is giving guidance to those who are in the best position to help sufferers – that is, their friends and family.

If you think a friend or relative might have an eating disorder, it might seem impossible to broach the subject – but ultimately, it might save their life.

Here Beat tells you how to go about helping someone you think might have an eating disorder.

Beat says:

Everybody knows somebody – eating disorders are far more common than you think.

These serious mental illnesses are affecting someone you know right now – in your tutor group, halls of residence, flat/house - and you can help them.

Eating disorders are not a diet gone wrong or a fad or fashion. They are a way of coping with difficult thoughts, emotions or experiences. Although many people make a full recovery from their eating disorder, it can happen that an emotional trauma such as relationship breakdown or bereavement may trigger its return.  It is important that the sufferer recognises the signs and seeks early help in order to halt the progress of this sometimes deadly illness.

What are the warning signs?

Your friend or relative may show signs by behaving very differently from usual. They may appear to not want to socialise with you and become quite withdrawn. They may get defensive and angry at times which may feel confusing to them and to you. 

They may make excuses in order to not eat, and may have lost a significant amount of weight, which they may not agree with if you point it out.

They may see themselves as 'fat' when they are clearly not, and may be exercising a lot more than normal. 

They may become competitive and talk a lot about calories and their body size in a negative way.

If someone is suffering from bulimia, they may disappear soon after a meal in order to make themselves sick.

If you are worried about a friend, afraid that they may have an eating disorder, you may also be afraid to say anything. You might be worried about making a false accusation, or saying the wrong thing and making it worse.

But an eating disorder is an illness, not a crime. You are not accusing anyone when you share your concern for their health and wellbeing. And reaching out with kindness can be the start of making the situation better, not worse.

Learn the facts about eating disorders

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect over 725,000 men and women in the UK of all ages and backgrounds – 1 in 85 people, in fact. The causes are complex and not yet fully understood but include a mix of genetic, biological and cultural factors.

So, what can you do?

Talk to the person you know

The most important thing is to prepare what you want to say and how you will say it. Make sure you choose the right time and place and explain that you have noticed changes in their behaviour and that you are concerned and want to help.

You’ll have to be prepared for them to be angry, upset or say hurtful things – but remember the illness affects how someone think, and can prevent them from being able to truly believe there is anything wrong.

Reach out earlier rather than later

The sooner someone gets the help they need, the more likely they are to make a full recovery – and reaching out and showing concern could be just what it takes for the person you know to have the courage to get help and support.

Everyone we speak to who has recovered says how grateful they were someone noticed, spoke to them and felt they were worth helping, even if at the time their reaction gave a different  impression – so bear this in mind.

Don’t be disheartened if you’re met with denial.  Accept that the decision to recover has to come from the sufferer, and reflect positively on the steps you’ve taken – you’ve opened a door.

Get support for yourself

Get some help for yourself first by talking to a friend or professional about your concerns. Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be exhausting and affect your own wellbeing.

Call our helpline, use our message boards or go along to your nearest Self Help and Support Group and talk to other people in the same situation. We also have a range of booklets dedicated to supporting someone with an eating disorder.

Remember: recovery is possible

· Eating disorders are treatable conditions and full recovery is possible.

· Read the recovery stories on our website to give you inspiration.

Beat provides a range of support including helplines for adults and young people, a UK wide network of self help and support groups and online support including information, message boards and live chat at

The charity also provides expert training to education, health and social care professionals and supports research into eating disorders.

Opening times for Adult Helpline: 0845 634 1414 and Youthline (under 25): 0845 634 7650

Monday: 12 noon to 8.30pm

Tuesday: 12 noon to 5pm

Wednesday: 12 noon to 8.30pm

Thursday: 12 noon to 5pm

Friday: 12 noon to 5pm


Help for young people (under 25):


Text: 07786 201820


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