How to Help a Friend with an Eating Disorder

Amber Ginter

iBelieve Contributing Writer
Updated Feb 20, 2024
How to Help a Friend with an Eating Disorder

Extending care and concern without criticism is essential to building trust.

If I could turn back the clock to when I was fourteen, I'm unsure if I would. I was knee-high in an addiction to exercise and an unhealthy relationship with food. It was my coping mechanism. My drug for dealing with the chaos of a dangerous and unpredictable home life around me. Trauma often brings out the worst in us—even if we're trying our best to deal with it. 

Over the last month, I've had half a dozen conversations with individuals who struggle with eating disorders. While many think this is solely a female disease, these interactions have also included males. According to John Hopkins Medicine, as many as 30 million people in the U.S. have an eating disorder. These are typically categorized into 5 main types:

1. Anorexia nervosa

2. Bulimia nervosa

3. Binge eating disorder

4. Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder

5. Other specified feeding or eating disorder

Today, I wouldn't consider myself an expert on the topic. But as someone who's wrestled deeply, I know the support and love I wish I had received in the thick of my struggle. The journey hasn't been easy. Recovery is often one day at a time. Many carry it with them for the rest of their lives. Together, and with the support of our friends, family, and one mighty God, we can help those who are hurting most. 

How do we do this?

1. Offer a Lending Ear

As nonchalant as it sounds, one of the best ways you can help a friend who struggles with an eating disorder is to lend a listening ear. Notice I said listening. Those caught in the addiction of self-harm will often feel ashamed, embarrassed, and in denial. As much as you might want to offer advice or ask questions, sometimes it's best to start by lending an ear. Not to respond, but to hear

In my conversations with those struggling, I can see the look in their eyes—pain, fear, confusion, and bewilderment. Those initial moments are not the time for me to tell them to get help, ridicule them, or ask questions. It's the time for me to offer a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, and a heart to extend compassion. 

2. Extend Care and Concern

After you've offered a lending ear, I would suggest that you extend care and concern to your friend. This is not easy for two reasons: 1. They may be in denial and get defensive, and 2. It can be uncomfortable to confront those you love. 

For the longest time, I think I used to believe that my issues weren't that bad. Unlike my siblings, I wasn't addicted to drugs or alcohol, I didn't steal, and I wasn't abusive. But you can still have a painful addiction even if it's different from your family's. And it doesn't make it any less serious. 

When those who loved me confronted me about my struggles, I was in denial. I ignored their questions, lied to their faces, and lied to myself. Not because I didn't want help, but because it scared me. It scared me to admit that I had a problem. It scared me to have something in my life that I thought I was in control of but only controlled me. It was unpredictable knowing what the future would hold, and how I would cope without the only way I knew how. 

Extending care and concern without criticism is essential to building trust. While it's important to emphasize that your friend gets professional help if they're struggling, it's equally important to express empathy towards them in what they're experiencing. 

According to the NHS, "Give your time, listen to them and try not to give advice or criticise – this can be tough when you do not agree with what they say about themselves and what they eat. Remember, you do not have to know all the answers. Just making sure they know you're there for them is what's important. This is especially true when it feels like your friend or relative is rejecting your friendship, help and support."

3. Become Informed 

The third and perhaps the best thing you can offer those who are struggling with an eating disorder is seeking to understand the demon they're wrestling with. Being informed might seem scary and overwhelming, but the more you can gain knowledge and learn about mental health illnesses like this one, the better support you can offer. 

Becoming informed doesn't mean you are an expert or need to be. But it does mean you will be more knowledgeable about the topic and more capable of offering helpful solutions. Personally, resources from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) are practical, clear, and easy to understand. Not only are their resources trustworthy and credible, but they usually come from those with deep empathy and understanding. 

4. Don't Make Assumptions

While this wasn't the case for me, and the accusations were valid, make sure that those you're concerned about feel your love above your accusations. Instead, try not to interpret behaviors without listening first. Those who feel ridiculed and judged by accusations and assumptions not only find it more difficult to share their emotions, but they are less likely to seek support.

According to Mind InfoLine, most people assume that disordered eating habits and patterns are directly linked to behaviors and physical traits. Things like body image, for example. While this is true for some, it's a grave misconception to believe it's true for everyone. 

In my struggles, an addiction to exercise and an unhealthy relationship with food were never about food or exercise. They were my inklings for control amid a chaotic and trauma-infused upbringing. While I still struggle with body image as a result, that's not the main problem at all. 

Some common misconceptions about eating disorders are:

-Eating disorders are solely based on body image. 

-You can tell if someone is dealing with an eating disorder based on their appearance. 

-Only women suffer from eating disorders. 

-Eating disorders are all about food, exercise, and being skinny. 

None of these assumptions are true. Eating disorders are based on more than body image. You can't always tell that someone is struggling with an eating disorder based on their appearance. Men and women, boys and girls, may suffer from eating disorders. And they aren't all about food, exercise, or being skinny. Eating disorders can impact anyone regardless of age, gender, weight, background, religion, or upbringing. 

As a Christian

As a Christian, I used to be ashamed to share my struggles. I thought, "If I'm a real Christian, I would get over this by now." The reality is this: Being a Christian doesn't make me exempt from the struggles of sin and shame. But it does make me capable of overcoming them and losing my shame in the process. 

When Jesus died on the cross for my sins, He died for the things I would struggle with in this life—eating disorders included. He died for all of it. Sin, shame, embarrassment, and fear. Every time I ran back to the addiction, He loved me the same. My struggle never once changed what He did for me on the cross. But He loved me too much to leave me there. 

I believe it's our duty and privilege to share that love with others. Even and especially as they're struggling. 

Mental health issues are real and serious. They impact even the best of Christians. It's time we learn to help those who are hurting, while they are, and not expect perfect people just because they are saved. 

With Christ, we can overcome the greatest of challenges in this life, including mental health struggles. But it will be a journey. Not because the struggles will always cease, but because we are human. 

God has blessed us with His Spirit and His Word to help us triumph over our greatest struggles. He's also given us medication, therapy, tools, resources, and coping mechanisms here on Earth to help us fight them. 

How will you help a friend who's struggling today? Let it start with a listening ear, a caring heart, an informed spirit, and an empathetic being. As Jesus would call us. As He always will. 

Agape, Amber

Related Resource: What Do You Do When You Want to Be Thinner?

"I want to be thinner." Have you said it? Have you thought it? It's a reality that many of us face because culture tells us that thinness is what we should desire and our culture values the way we look only if we are thin. Today, on the Compared to Who? Podcast, Heather unpacks what we can do, biblically, to explore that desire we have to be thinner or a longing we have for any sort of body change.

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Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Tetiana Soares

amber ginter headshotAmber Ginter is a teacher-turned-author who loves Jesus, her husband Ben, and granola. Growing up Amber looked for faith and mental health resources and found none. Today, she offers hope for young Christians struggling with mental illness that goes beyond simply reading your Bible and praying more. Because you can love Jesus and still suffer from anxiety. You can download her top faith and mental health resources for free to help navigate books, podcasts, videos, and influencers from a faith lens perspective. Visit her website at