Tips for carers: How to help a loved one with an eating disorder

People suffering from an eating disorder experience a preoccupation with food, exercise, or their body shape. The three main types of eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. 


Anorexia Nervosa

People suffering from Anorexia Nervosa have an extreme fear of becoming overweight. They restrict their food intake and lose a considerable amount of weight as a result. Although they are currently underweight for her age, height, and gender, they do not see themselves this way. 


Bulimia Nervosa

People suffering from Bulimia Nervosa place a significant emphasis on their body shape and weight. Although they may not appear to be under- or over- weight, they are engaging in disordered eating. This typically involves a binge eating episode followed by one or more compensatory behaviours. Compensatory behaviours commonly used by people suffering from Bulimia Nervosa include vomiting, use of drugs for the purpose of weight loss, fasting, excessive exercise, or using laxatives or diuretics. 


Binge Eating Disorder

People suffering from Binge Eating Disorder experience a compulsion to consume a large amount of food in a small amount of time. Sufferers often describe feeling a loss of control in their ability to stop eating, followed by guilt and shame after the binge episode. Sufferers are typically living in larger bodies, and may hide food in secretive places such as bedrooms. 


Eating Disorders Are Serious Mental Illnesses 

People suffering from eating disorders are not doing this for attention or as a lifestyle choice. Instead, they are experiencing a serious, often chronic, mental illness with severe associated risks. Anorexia Nervosa has a mortality rate of approximately 20%, which is the highest of any psychiatric illness. Associated risks of eating disorders include, but are not limited to: 

  • Anemia;
  • A chronic sore throat or indigestion;
  • Rupturing of the oesophagus and stomach;
  • Stomach and intestinal ulcers;
  • Irregular or slow heartbeat;
  • Infertility;
  • Osteoporosis;
  • Chronic irregular bowel movements;
  • Stroke;
  • Heart, liver, or kidney failure;
  • Type two diabetes;
  • Cancer;
  • Asthma;
  • Irritable bowel syndrome.


Research shows that 55-88% of people suffering from an eating disorder also experience a comorbid condition. Specifically, 55% of adolescents with Anorexia Nervosa, 88% of adolescents with Bulimia Nervosa, and 84% of people with Binge Eating Disorder. The most common comorbid conditions include social anxiety, generalised anxiety, depression, substance use, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 


Unfortunately there is no quick and easy fix for families caring for an unwell child with an eating disorder, and ensuring that they have the best chance for recovery is a full-time, long-term commitment that involves the entire family. Anorexia Nervosa currently has an average illness duration of 5-7 years, with only 60% of people making a full recovery. Bulimia Nervosa has an average illness duration of 6.5 years, with 55% of sufferers recovering within a 5 year period. Binge Eating Disorder has the highest recovery rate of the three main eating disorders, with 80% of sufferers achieving recovery within 3-5 years. 


Ways That Extended Family and Friends Can Help

To give their child the best chance of recovering from an eating disorder, parents’ lives typically need to dramatically change. Family and friends can help with this process by giving the family some privacy. This does not mean cutting off all communication, but instead giving them time and space to care for their child. You can do this by:


  1. Checking in with them before visiting their home incase they are unable to have guests over at that time 
  2. Understanding that they can no longer commit to social engagements with certainty of being able to attend. Everyday with a child experiencing Anorexia Nervosa is unpredictable and they will need to be available for activities such meal times taking longer than initially planned.
  3. Parents know what is best for their own child. You may have an opinion about what they could be doing differently, however, they are being guided by health professionals and are doing what is best for their family. This should be respected.


Practical ways to help (if applicable):

  • Taking other children to school, sport, or lessons 
  • Grocery shopping 
  • Organising home repairs
  • Taking and picking up clothes from dry cleaner
  • Taking pets to vet
  • Minding pets
  • Taking pets on walks
  • Taking car for service
  • Offering a short rest bite outing to either parents
  • Educating inquisitive parents or acquaintances about eating disorders
  • Researching evidence-based treatment options for adolescents (if requested)


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