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Warning Signs and Approaching Loved Ones With Eating Disorders

By HERWriter
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National Eating Disorders Awareness Week might have just ended, but that doesn’t mean you should stop spreading awareness about eating disorders and learning more information about these prevalent mental health issues.

There are warning signs you can look for in family and friends. Experts also have information on how to approach loved ones who could be struggling with an eating disorder.

Susan Kleinman, a dance and movement therapist at the Renfrew Center of Florida, said in an email that there are a plethora of eating disorder warning signs.

Here are a few to watch out for:

1) “A preoccupation with weight, food, food labels and dieting.”

2) “Excessive drinking of fluids or denial of hunger.”

3) “Avoidance of meal times and situations involving food.”

4) “Withdrawal from friends and activities.”

5) “Self-induced vomiting or abuse of laxatives, diuretics or diet pills.”

6) “Excessive, rigid exercise regimen.”

7) “A change in dress, such as over-sized clothing to cover the body or revealing clothes to flaunt weight loss.”

8) “Feeling ‘not good enough’ much of the time, or the need to be perfect.”

Here are the best ways you can approach loved ones, according to Kleinman:

1) “Listen to your friend/family member with understanding, respect and sensitivity.”

2) “Tell the person that you are concerned, that you care and would like to help.”

3) “Talk about things other than food, weight, counting calories and exercise. Attempt to discuss feelings instead.”

4) “Stay calm. These things take time. If frustrated, take a break and plan to resume the discussion at a later time.”

There are also incorrect ways to approach loved ones:

1) “Don’t blame them for doing something wrong or tell them they are acting silly.”

2) “Don’t make comments about a person’s appearance. Concern about weight loss may be interpreted as a compliment and comments about weight gain may be seen as criticism.”

3) “Don’t be afraid to upset them; talk to them.”

4) “Don’t try to solve the problem for them. They need a qualified professional.”

Lynn Grefe, the president and CEO of National Eating Disorders Association, said in an email that there are multiple warning signs of eating disorders.

Here are a few to watch out for:

1) “Of course, in the case of Anorexia, it could be sudden weight loss – but of course you want to ensure that they aren’t struggling with a different illness.”

2) “Changes in mood while noticing different behaviors around food, avoiding food, meals, social situations.”

3) “Possibly always saying you just ate, or going to the bathroom immediately after meals, hiding food.”

Grefe suggests that it is best to let loved ones know that you are concerned and want to help. It’s important to approach them with kindness, and you can suggest to help them call the NEDA Helpline, which is 800-931-2237.

You can work with them to find treatment options and resources. Keep in mind that you need to be understanding, and realize no one chooses to have an eating disorder -- it is a mental illness.

Dr. Kim Dennis, the CEO and medical director at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, said in an email that there are many online resources for eating disorders, like these websites:


See additional resources in the sources section below.

Dennis has some suggestions as to how to go about talking to loved ones about potential eating disorders that they have:

1) “Talk about it and get support. The worst thing any of us can do is to have concern about an eating disorder in someone we love, and to keep that concern a secret. Silence can be deadly, so try to remember that if you are afraid that your friend or family member will get upset or offended if you approach her.”

2) “The best way to approach your love one is with honesty, compassion and lack of judgment.”

3) “Use the ‘I see ... , I think ... and I feel ...’ format. For example, ‘enny, when I see you going to the bathroom every time right after we eat, I think that you might be struggling with food, and I feel sad and scared.’ It is also helpful to preface it with, ‘I might be way off here, but there's something I need to check out with you.’”

Dennis has another piece of advice for all women, not just those struggling with an eating disorder.

“Throw away your scale! Let your doctor weigh you,” she said. “Or your nutritionist. This frees people up to be more than a number on a scale, and whether or not they have an eating disorder to stop obsession about food and body.”


Kleinman, Susan. Email interview. Feb. 20, 2013.

Dennis, Kim. Email interview. Feb. 20, 2013.

Grefe, Lynn. Email interview. Feb. 19, 2013.

Reviewed March 5, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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