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How To Help a Friend With an Eating Disorder

Things you can do if a friend has an eating disorder

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Eating disorders can strike suddenly. One day, your friend is eating pizza with the works and drinking soda at your birthday party. A few weeks later, she can't bear the thought of pepperoni -- or any of her other favorite foods. Maybe she's making excuses not to eat lunch at school, or maybe you've heard her vomiting in the bathroom. Maybe you've seen her lose weight, but she doesn't even seem to notice the change in her appearance. In any case, she's going downhill fast, and you're worried about her. What should you do if a friend seems to have anorexia or bulimia? Read on for answers.

Who Suffers From Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are often portrayed as a mysterious problem that only affects privileged white teens, but that's not the case. Actually, they affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds, and they’re considered illnesses that have a physical and a psychological side.

Though eating disorders are particularly common among teenage girls, they're not uncommon among teenage boys either. In fact, experts estimate that by their early 20s, up to 40% of women and up to 10% of men have struggled with an eating disorder.

Are Eating Disorders a Serious Problem?

Yes! The consequences of eating disorders are serious, ranging from social withdrawal and isolation to chronic health problems and even death. Plus, most eating disorders are accompanied by a psychological disorder that needs attention, such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder or borderline personality disorder.

What Is Anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia is one of the most common eating disorders among teens. A person with anorexia (also known as an anorectic) is extremely fearful of gaining weight or becoming fat, so afraid that he or she refuses to eat enough to maintain a body weight that's anywhere near normal.

People with this disorder actually can't see their bodies in a healthy way: Even when looking in the mirror at an extremely thin version of their body, they see someone who’s fat.

What Is Bulimia?

Bulimia is also very common among teens, but it can be harder to spot. Someone with bulimia may have a normal weight, and they may seem to eat a normal amount of food -- perhaps even more than normal. Despite this difference, bulimics, like anorectics, have an extremely negative body image.

Bulimics also tend to feel very guilty or anxious about eating and tend to deal with these feelings by making themselves vomit (purging) and/or by using laxatives, diuretics or weight-loss pills. Some bulimics use enemas to clear food out of their systems, while others exercise excessively or go long periods without eating to achieve the same results.

What Is Binge-Eating Disorder?

In addition to anorexia and bulimia, many teens also struggle with binge eating, which is also considered an eating disorder. Binge eaters will eat great amounts of food in response to stress, anger or boredom -- or when they're feeling out of control.

Unlike bulimics, binge eaters don't purge or use pills to remove the food from their bodies, but they experience similar feelings of self-hatred and guilt. Like anorectics and bulimics, binge eaters tend to feel very negative about their bodies, and many suffer from depression and low self-esteem.

What Are The Signs of Eating Disorders?

People with eating disorders are often experts at hiding the signs of the disease. However, they will often show at least a few of the following symptoms:

  • Avoidance of situations that involve eating
  • Obsession with food, calories and fat
  • Irrational fears of gaining weight
  • Restriction of the types of food eaten
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and social activities
  • Depression
  • Constant use of gum, hard candy or diet soda to curb his or her appetite
  • Significant weight loss or ups and downs in weight, plus denial of weight change
  • Bloated cheeks
  • Hair loss
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Damage to tooth enamel
  • Growth of fine, downy hair on arms, legs or face
  • Lack of menstrual periods (amenorrhea)

How Can I Help Friends With Eating Disorders?

First of all, remind yourself that your friend’s eating disorder is not your fault. He or she is suffering from a disease and probably needs medical and psychological help. Do your best to support your friend without blaming him or her. Here are a few tips:

  • Tell your friend you're worried about her weight loss or his use of laxatives. Be specific.
  • Insist that he or she get professional help and offer to go along to appointments with a doctor, counselor, dietitian or the school nurse.
  • Set a positive example with your eating habits and attitudes toward food.
  • Try not to gossip about your friend’s appearance.
  • Make yourself available to listen to your friend’s fears and problems.
  • Smile, laugh and be a source of positive energy.

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