Eating Disorders come in all different shapes, colors, forms and sizes. They affect people across all cultures, ages, genders, and backgrounds. Here are some of the most common (but not all) eating disorders:

Anorexia Nervosa

Restricting food, excessive dieting, self-starvation to the point where one is losing a lot of weight in a short period of time. Also related to perfectionist tendencies, lack of control, trauma or difficulty adjusting to a situation, low self-esteem and poor body image.

Common signs

  • Skipping meals
  • Saying negative things about their appearance or themselves
  • Making excuses for eating small amounts or not eating
  • Cutting food into small pieces
  • Mixing around food on plate
  • Talking excessively during meals
  • Loss of energy
  • Unable to enjoy activities they once enjoyed
  • Idolizing “skinny”
  • Disgust or uninterested in food

Bulimia Nervosa

Intake of an excessive amount of food in one sitting (binging) and then making oneself throw up (purging). Related to control, attempting to find balance or control, low self-esteem, poor body image and extreme feelings of guilt after eating. Most have a normal body weight. Could also be paired with anorexia.

Common signs

  • Using the bathroom after meals (frequently)
  • Turning on the shower/faucet when in the bathroom
  • Excessive and frequent coughing in the bathroom
  • Yellowed teeth and/or fingernails
  • Extreme guilt after eating
  • Idolizing a certain body image

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

Most common eating disorder. Intake of an excessive amount of food in one sitting, without purging. Immense weight gain and associated health issues.

Common signs

  • Hiding food (in drawers, bags, etc.)
  • Hiding while eating (in the car, in their room, the bathroom, etc.)
  • Feelings of extreme guilt after eating
  • Eating past their point of being full
  • Eating excessively without being hungry
  • Intense preoccupation with food
  • Seem to derive happiness from food
  • Less than active lifestyle

Anorexia is the most deadly mental illness. This is why knowing the signs and getting them help right away is extremely important.

The most important thing to know about eating disorders is that they are not a choice. More likely than not, the fear of gaining weight or the tendency to eat too much, will derive from some underlying cause.

What not to say/do to someone with an eating disorder

Do not force them to eat

Everyone knows that nutrition is important, but force does not work. Threatening the person or making ultimatums will only cause more distress to the person struggling and could lead them to other destructive behaviors in order to gain control (purging, use of laxatives, drug/alcohol abuse, self-harm, running away, or even suicide attempts).

Do not tell them they are not fat

Do you really think that you saying that will solve all their problems? It just makes them feel weird and as if they are crazy. You don’t have to agree with their belief, but at least acknowledge that they feel as if they are fat and get them help.

Do not idolize their disorder

There are some people that will say “I wish I was anorexic”, “you look so skinny” or “you look great”. This only idolizes their disorder and furthers their commitment to it. They will want to receive even more compliments! An eating disorder isn’t something anyone should really want to have, as there are devastating consequences.

Do not tell them they don’t really have an eating disorder

This can happen frequently if the person is a male or a member of a minority group. Eating disorders are often improperly labeled as “a young, white girl’s problem”. This is certainly not the case and you are making the person feel uncomfortable while delaying their recovery. Do not treat them differently from anyone else who has an eating disorder. This could also happen when someone is diagnosed with “Atypical Anorexia” which is self-starvation without being underweight. It could make them feel as if they are not “good enough at being anorexic” and lead to harsher methods of weight loss.

Do not tell them to “get over it”

You don’t tell a person with cancer or HIV to “get over it”, so don’t do it with an eating disorder. It takes a lot of treatment and therapy to recover. You are better off learning more about eating disorders and directing them to an appropriate source of help.

Do not give up on them

Chances are, they really need a friend or support system right now. They may be unpleasant or difficult to be around, but it is not their fault. Show them that you care and reach out to a professional who can help them. Let them know that they are capable of recovering.

Important things to know

Most people who are struggling with an eating disorder have a serious underlying issue that needs to be resolved. This could be trauma, sexual/physical/emotional abuse, bullying, extremely low self-worth, low self-esteem, little/no support system, trouble adjusting (to a move, divorce, etc.), depression, anxiety, self-harm, and/or suicidal thoughts. Therefore, it is important that the person struggling seek treatment in order to resolve the eating disorder and the underlying issue. Failure to seek treatment can lead to other issues and even a relapse after recovery.

People who have struggled or are currently struggling from an eating disorder have triggers that may cause disordered eating. For example, a buffet can be scary for someone with a history (past or present) of anorexia because there are so many food choices (healthy and unhealthy) and they feel overwhelmed. They may also feel anxiety eating around other people and worry that they will think they are eating too little or too much. Someone with binge eating disorder or bulimia may feel the need to eat a lot more than they should and feel guilty afterwards. Another person may have disordered eating during high times of stress. Be mindful of certain triggers and help the person know that they are not strange for feeling this way. Direct the person to a professional if the triggers become very frequent or too overwhelming for them.

If someone is recovered, it is important to look out for what they need. They may have a few slip-ups and that is okay. In this case, it would be inappropriate to recommend treatment. Let them know that you are there for them and remind them the importance of seeking help if it becomes more frequent. Accusing someone of relapsing could make them believe that they are and lead to more frequent behaviors, so it is essential to look for the signs and be sensitive toward them.

If you’re not sure, ASK!

If you see signs of an eating disorder but are not sure, ask them! It is better to be safe than sorry. Make sure you approach them privately, gently and respectfully. Do not accuse them or make them feel ashamed: I.e. “You’re not anorexic, are you?!” Say something like, “I’ve noticed some things that caught my attention and I could be totally wrong but I care about you and want to let you know that if you are struggling, you can talk to me and we can get help together”. You are not expected to be the sole source of support or therapist to them, so it is very important to direct them to a professional. It may even help to go to the therapist’s office or treatment center with them to ensure that they go and feel supported.

Helpful Resources

*Disclaimer: I am not, nor do I call myself, an expert on Eating Disorders. This is an area of interest I have done extensive research on, but the previous statements may not apply to everyone. Each individual experiences things differently and in their own way because everyone has different situations in their life. This needs to be taken into account. The above information speaks about the “general” ideas of Eating Disorders, but I cannot speak for everyone who struggles.