How to Help Loved Ones with Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating is when somebody eats a large amount of food and feels unable to stop. Most of us overeat from time to time, but regular overeating can mean that a person has binge eating disorder – an eating disorder and serious mental health issue.If you think that a loved one is a binge eater and you want to help, express your concern, offer support, and learn as much as you can about the condition.
Expressing Your Concerns
Make time to talk.Binge eating is a serious health condition that affects people’s physical and mental well-being. Binge eaters have many of the same body image and mood problems as those with other eating disorders like bulimia, and they can also become obese. If you’re concerned with a loved one’s behavior, it’s important to express your concerns. The first step is to talk.
- Set up a private, respectful meeting to discuss your worries openly and honestly. Choose a time and a place that is free from distractions – this might be your home or apartment or it might take place over the telephone.
- You might say something like, “Rob, I’ve wanted to talk to you about something important for a while. Do you have time to sit down and talk?” or “Linda, I want to have a frank talk with you. Do you have time?”
Voice your concerns.Try to be frank but loving. Sit down and express your concern while keeping in mind that binge eaters can be very vulnerable and often feel shame or guilt about their behavior. That said, the first and foremost goal should be getting your loved one help.
- Use concrete examples. Recall memories of specific times when your loved one’s eating concerned you and explain that, in your opinion, this could point to a problem that needs intervention.
- For instance, “I first got worried when I came over last month. I noticed you had a dozen empty ice cream containers in the trash” or “I’m concerned that you seem to go on and off diets. I remember you made weight-loss resolutions the last two years, but they only lasted for a week or two. Is everything OK?”
Encourage treatment.Once you’ve raised concerns about your loved one’s health, ask whether he or she is willing to take these to a professional. Self-help can work for some binge eaters, but many more need more directed medical treatment. Urge your loved one to see a doctor, nutritionist, counselor, or therapist.
- Say something like, “Bill, would you be willing to see a nutritionist and get a professional opinion? I’m really worried you could have an eating disorder” or “Maybe you should talk to a doctor, Julie. I’m worried about your behavior.”
Offer your full support.As a friend or family member, make it clear that you are there and will offer your support. Part of this is helping your loved one get help and treatment. However, another part is to listen, encourage, and avoid assigning blame. Stress that you just want your loved one to be happy and healthy.
- Your loved one might be in denial and refuse to admit that there is a problem. In that case, restate your concern and drop the subject, but state that you are available to listen at any time.
- If you feel up to it, you can also offer to help your loved one make a first appointment and even come along on the first visit.
Avoid assigning blame or guilt.Binge eating is a mental health disorder and not a “bad habit” or a matter of a lack of willpower, so stay away from statements that put on the onus on your loved one. Also avoid offering simple solutions, i.e. “Just show a little willpower” or “If you cut back, everything will be fine!”
- To be more neutral, try favoring “I” statements over “you” statements, i.e. “I’m concerned because you’re so secretive about eating” instead of “You’re being irresponsible and hurting your health.”
Providing Emotional Support
Listen without criticizing.You can help a binge eating loved one just by being there for moral and emotional support. Make it clear that you are ready to talk and to listen – and that your love is always available. That alone can be a big help for someone who is struggling with body-image and emotional problems.
- Try to give your time freely when the loved one needs to vent or confide in you. At the same time, though, listen. Avoid criticizing and offering advice – this can be particularly hard if your loved one says things about himself and his eating that you don’t agree with.
- Listening and caring does not mean letting yourself be manipulated, however. Don’t agree to rules or expectations that you can’t or won’t follow, i.e. “You can’t tell anyone else about this” or “If you ever say a word about this, I’ll never speak to you again.”
Include your loved one in social events.People who have eating disorders often struggle with other, related issues like depression and severe body image problems. Your loved one might therefore withdraw from her usual activities and not really be “the same” anymore. She might not want to go out with you or want to be included in things. It’s important that she know you still want her there, even if that’s not possible at the moment.
- Invite your loved one to do things and keep trying to include her, just as before, i.e. “Hi Iliana, we’re going bowling tonight. Do you want to join us? No? Well, we really wish you could come!” An invitation shows that you are thinking about her.
- Even if your loved one doesn’t want to come out, she will probably still appreciate being asked. An invitation will remind her that you care about and value her as a person.
Give compliments and model healthy self-esteem.Most people who binge eat have low-self esteem and feel negatively about themselves, their bodies, skills, and accomplishments. Another way that you can give concrete support is by boosting your loved one’s sense of self with compliments and by being a good model yourself.
- Compliment your loved one on things other than appearance, i.e. personality, talents, and character. Say something like, “You’re such a great person” or “I really value having great friends like you.” This can remind your loved one that true beauty is not based on appearance.
- Try to model healthy self-esteem, as well. Remember that your loved one sees how you talk about your own body and about others, so stress the value in things like character and personality rather than appearance. Avoid judging people based on size and shape, yourself included.
Learning More About Binge Eating
Get educated.Try to learn as much as you can about binge eating as well as other eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Increasing your own awareness about these mental health disorders will help you to understand what your loved one is experiencing, while dispelling some of the commonly held myths about food and body image.
- Look for books, pamphlets, and online materials on binge eating. Check medical websites like the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and the National Eating Disorder Association to learn more about binge eating’s symptoms, prevalence, and behavioral characteristics.
- Learn to recognize misconceptions about eating and binge eating, like the idea that body fat and weight gain show a lack of control or laziness.
Learn about treatment options.Find out more about how medical professionals treat binge eating, so that you have a better idea of what your loved one can expect in recovery. You’ll find that there are a variety of methods ranging from self-help and cognitive behavioral therapy to medication and weight loss programs. Read up on these.
- Start at your library and look for self-help books or contact a local charity like Beat, which can provide information on self-help and other support groups. Some people are able to control their binge eating entirely through self-help.
- Ask a professional like a doctor or counselor about psychological treatments. There are a number of psychological therapies available for binge eating, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and interpersonal therapy. All of these involve talking to a counselor, exploring relationships with food, and learning other ways to regulate feelings and behavior.
- You can also ask a doctor about medical treatments for binge eating. Some patients respond to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), for instance, which boost levels of the hormone serotonin in the brain and may help improve eating habits.
Pay attention to what you see in the media.One final way to be educated about binge eating and eating disorders is to recognize our society’s “thin ideal.” You see it everywhere – the idea that thin people are more happy, beautiful, and desired. This is not only wrong but also very unhealthy. And anxiety about being thin lies behind many eating disorders.
- Be aware of what you see on television and in books and magazines. Remember that the images you see there aren’t real – they’re what advertisers want you to see.
- Consider starting a conversation with your friends and loved ones about the media and body image. Reflect and talk about how you too might be reinforcing the “thin ideal” in your own lives.
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