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Here's How You Can Help Your Friend Recovering From An Eating Disorder

Remember you're a friend, not a therapist.

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1. Avoid commenting on their physical appearance.

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Over 1.6 million people in the UK are estimated to be directly affected by eating disorders, which is likely to be an underestimate as there is a huge level of unmet need. If your friend has an eating disorder it's an incredibly scary experience – it's hard to know how to act around them or what to do to help.

Firstly, any comments on what your friend looks like, no matter how well-intentioned, will be flipped in their mind to fuel disordered thinking. "You're too thin, I'm worried" or "I know you're ill but you look healthy" are statements you should avoid. Instead, ask them about how they're feeling and what they're finding difficult, and encourage them to seek help.

2. Remember they won’t have rational feelings towards food.

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It can be frustrating to see how your friend's eating disorder is affecting their everyday life, and it may be difficult to try to wrap your head around why they're self-destructing. However, saying things like "Just stop purging!" or "Just eat!" won't do anything to help them get better.

Renee McGregor, nutrition lead at Anorexia & Bulimia Care (ABC), explained to BuzzFeed News:

"Individuals with eating disorders work really hard at maintaining their disorder as it feels safe; help them to understand that some of the rules and rituals they have put in place to keep their eating disorder active are not helping. Remind them of what they will gain if they can start to let go of the ED and how actually the ED is holding them back."

3. Help them realise they are more than their disorder.

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Helping your friend see that they exist beyond the illness can be super valuable. Suggest activities that don't involve eating so the two of you can spend time together without worrying about food.

Your friend may be isolating themselves, and no matter how often they decline your invitation, don't be disheartened. Keep trying, let them know the option to socialise is always there when they're ready.

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4. Give them space.

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People who struggle with eating disorders are often ashamed about what they're going through. When they're in public they may seem on edge, defensive, and anxious. Understand that this is an extremely tough time for them – they may snap or act out irrationally. It's important to give them space and be forgiving.

One day they might be closer to recovery and the next day it may seem like they've taken a step back. Recovery isn't a simple road, it has ups and downs, it's messy and it's difficult.

5. Remember you're a friend, not a therapist.

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It's important to be aware of your own limits. You haven't had years of specialist training and you can't hold your friend's hand through every stage of recovery. Encourage them to seek counselling so they can understand why they developed an eating disorder in the first place, but remember it's not up to you to fix them.

Also, be wary of anything you read about recovery online as there are a lot of fad diets and pseudoscience out there. McGregor told BuzzFeed News: "At ABC we come across so many carers who want to help their friend or loved one and have read about the latest vitality diet or latest gimmick like the Nutribullet trend and think they are helping, but this is not helpful."

There is a huge amount of false information out there and it's important that nutrition advice comes from a qualified dietitian. Dietitians are the only qualified practitioners able to work with clinical conditions like eating disorders.

6. They won't get better overnight.

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If your friend has made the step to seek treatment, remember that there's still a long road ahead, both mentally and physically. McGregor told BuzzFeed News: "Weight restoration cannot always be rushed due to psychological and physiological reasons. If an individual has been severely restricting their energy intake, trying to provide too many calories too quickly can actually have detrimental effects."

Challenging and ultimately changing deeply entrenched food behaviours is a massive task for people with eating disorders, and perhaps the biggest challenge of their lives. It will take time and trial-and-error to get to the root of these issues.

Day to day your friend will have to face triggers, insecurities, and self-doubt. You have to be patient and supportive, even if you do feel disappointed when it seems like they've taken a step back.

7. Recovery isn't a straightforward journey.

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People in recovery are often given various plans and schedules. McGregor explained: "I usually ask new clients to draw up a food ladder. This involves drawing a ladder with rungs, allocating the bottom rungs to foods that they feel able to eat fairly comfortably and working up to the top rungs with foods that are too difficult."

These types of plans help your friend build a picture of where they are and where they should be headed, but this does't mean their recovery journey will be super straightforward.

Recovery is also about growth and discovery. Your friend has to find new ways to cope with their feelings and it may be a process of trial and error.

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8. Don't give them ultimatums.

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Sometimes it feels like by supporting your friend and not mentioning anything to do with their food intake, or their appearance, you're almost playing along with their eating disorder – you're letting them get away with it.

As difficult as it is, don't put your friend under pressure. Don't say "If you don't get better I can't be your friend", don't set them dates to accomplish their goals. You are not their therapist. Be there for them, talk to them if you are concerned, but don't set any deadlines.

9. Talk about feelings, not food.

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Don't talk about dieting, eating healthy, looking healthy, etc. because your friend's perception of "healthy" will be warped. People with eating disorders find it extremely triggering when people say things like "Oh but you don't look anorexic." That may trigger feelings of competition: They suddenly fear they're not the "best" anorexic, so they need to be thinner.

Don't bring up the fact that you think they may be eating too little or too much – whatever you say they will turn against themselves. Talk about how they're feeling, what they're worried about, and steer the conversation away from food.

10. Talk to a third party.

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Remember you are a friend, and being a supportive friend to someone who is going through eating disorder recovery is an important and unique role. There are things you can take on that a therapist can't. However, don't feel like you have to be perfect. Nothing prepared you for this.

You may make mistakes but remember that you'll learn to be the best friend you can be as you go along. Do your research, educate yourself on what your friend's going through, but also talk to people about how you're doing, whether it's friends, counsellors, or telephone support lines.

11. Look after yourself.

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When you're constantly surrounded by food issues and body insecurities it may be that it starts to affect your day-to-day life as well. Make sure you take a break – because you can't be a good role model to your friend if you don't practise your own self-care.

Recovery is a long, hard journey but with time and support, it is possible. ABC, the Anorexia and Bulimia Care charity, offers befriending support to sufferers as well as being the only national ED charity that has support helplines open 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday, for carers and sufferers, helping them through the recovery process.