Reviewed by Paula Edwards-Gayfield, MA, LCMHCS, LPC, NCC, CEDS-C

Disordered eating is when a person’s attitudes about food, weight, and body size lead someone to engage in eating and exercise habits (as well as other disordered behaviors) that negatively impact important areas of life and jeopardize one’s mental and physical health. These disordered behaviors can often be contrary to or in conflict with a person’s values (e.g. valuing honesty yet feeling compelled to keep the disordered eating secret and then feeling guilt or shame for engaging in what they may perceive as lying). It is never too early to ask for help about eating concerns. When you notice that disordered eating habits are affecting your life, your happiness, and your ability to concentrate, it is important to seek support (e.g., family, friends, professionals) that you can talk to about what you’re going through. These behaviors can quickly get out of control and may even lead to an eating disorder, which can be a life-threatening problem.

If you are able to recognize disordered eating attitudes and behaviors in yourself, you have already taken a significant step towards recovery. The next step—telling a trusted friend, family member, or professional (i.e., counselor, dietitian, or physician) that is trained in treating eating disorders—is equally as important. While it can be anxiety provoking, early intervention and support is the best course of action!

You should not attempt to address your disordered eating alone; discussing the feelings you’re experiencing with a loved one can provide essential comfort, support, and direction. Starting that initial conversation may be challenging, but these guidelines were developed to help make it a bit easier.

Establish a Safe Environment

Identify someone whom you trust and feel comfortable talking to about your struggles or concerns regarding this issue. Family and friends can be wonderful, supportive resources, but if you’re concerned about your eating behaviors, it is advisable to also speak with a professional counselor and/or dietitian. Getting help from a professional who understands and specializes in disordered eating, compensatory behaviors to manage weight or emotional distress, and body image issues can feel less threatening and more objective because they are familiar with situations like your own.

Whether you decide to speak with a professional or a loved one (or both!), set aside a specific time with that person so you can discuss your situation. Try to find a private, comfortable place away from other people and distractions so that you can talk openly. It is normal to not know exactly what type of support you need at first, but a loved one and/or a professional can guide and support you during this process.

Both before and during this conversation, it is common for you to experience a range of feelings including fear, shame, guilt, anger, embarrassment, or nervousness. Asking for help is hard! Try to remember that sharing this information is a demonstration of your courage and you are doing the right thing. You are not alone; it is important to talk about this and ask for help. Be proud of yourself for taking this important step toward a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle!

Explain the Situation

Try to be as detailed as possible when explaining the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing and the behaviors you have developed. Start from the beginning and take your time. Discuss how you began the disordered eating and compensatory behaviors, and why you believe they have continued. Although you may not be able to fully explain the reasons for these behaviors (e.g., restricting, binge eating, purging, over-exercising etc.), attempting to do so may help you recognize patterns in your behaviors and help you understand the situations in which you engage in them.

It is important to keep in mind that the person you have confided in may not completely understand exactly how you are feeling or the reasons for your behavior. They may demonstrate shock, denial, fear, or even anger. Be patient and remain calm. Remember that they may not automatically know the best way to respond and support you, but you can help them learn. 

Answering some or all of these questions before your meeting may help you frame what you’d like to share:

  • When did you begin having different thoughts regarding food, weight, and/or exercise? What were those thoughts?
  • When did these behaviors start? What behaviors did you notice? How were you feeling at the time? Did you hope to accomplish something specific (e.g., lose weight, maintain weight, gain control of something, decrease emotional distress, get somebody’s attention, see what it was like etc.) by engaging in the behavior?
  • Have you noticed any physical health effects (e.g., fatigue, loss of hair, digestive problems, loss of or inconsistent menstrual cycle, dental issues, weight fluctuations)? You can learn more about the health consequences of eating disorders here.
  • Have you noticed any emotional effects? Do you experience negative feelings about your eating and/or body image? Have you noticed any changes in relationships with others? Has your school or work performance been impacted? Have you noticed any changes in your ability to enjoy things you used to take pleasure in? 
  • How are you currently feeling physically? Emotionally? How ready do you feel to stop the disordered eating behaviors?
  • How can the people in your life best support you? Do you want them to monitor your behavior? Do you want them to ask you how you are doing with your recovery process, or would you rather tell them about it when you’re ready? What changes are you willing to make in your life to establish a balanced lifestyle?

Educate with the Facts

Give the person you confide in some information regarding the prevalence of eating disorders and tips for how to best support somebody who is struggling with food, weight, or body image issues. Share facts with them that include the physical and emotional effects of eating disorders, along with the steps involved in recovery. Consider inviting your loved one to accompany you to an appointment with a professional who can assist with educating your support system.

Let this person know how they can help and what you need and keep them informed as your needs change throughout your recovery process. It can be helpful to have weekly check-ins, have loved ones involved in family sessions or receive updates from your treatment team. Remind them that recovery is a gradual process—there may even be some setbacks—and you will require patience and understanding along the way.

As you begin to address your eating concerns, keep in mind that every body is unique, special, and beautiful! Reaching out to the people who care for you and want to help you get better is the first step towards embracing recovery and developing a healthy relationship with food and with yourself.