How to Help Someone With Binge Eating Disorder: 11 Tips You Can Use
By Kaila Peak-Rishel
Table of Contents
How to help someone with binge eating
One of the most common questions we hear as eating disorder treatment providers is: How can I help someone with binge eating disorder? Binge eating disorder (BED) is one of the most common eating disorders, impacting millions of people in the U.S. each year . Yet this eating disorder is often shrouded in shame, secrecy and isolation.
It is understandably difficult to approach a friend or a loved one who might have an eating disorder, even if you know they are struggling. Here we provide tips for supporting those you love.
What is binge eating disorder?
People with BED regularly eat a larger amount than others would eat in the same timeframe. They often have trouble stopping the binge and feel physically and/or emotionally upset afterward. BED is misunderstood and underdiagnosed. However, with treatment it is possible to recover from BED. Learn more about BED here.
What are the signs of binge eating disorder?
Almost everyone overeats (binges) on occasion, such as eating past fullness when eating something we really enjoy. For some people, binge eating becomes a regular cycle and pattern of eating that can disrupt their daily lives and make them feel out of control. When an individual binges regularly, followed by feelings of shame, regret or disgust, they may be living with BED. Common signs of BED include:
- Eating more rapidly than normal
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food even when not feeling physically hungry
- Eating alone because of feelings of embarrassment stemming from how much one eats
- Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed or guilty after eating
How can I support someone who is binge eating?
We want you to know that support and connection from friends and loved ones isn’t just helpful for people with eating disorders. Support and connection provides a cornerstone on the path to recovery for those ready to overcome binge eating. Having said that, it can feel stressful and sometimes impossible to know what to say to someone with an eating disorder. Before we dive into what TO say, we want to review what NOT to say to someone who binge-eats.
What NOT to say to someone who binges
Many of us feel a natural urge to offer “solutions” when a loved one is struggling. Perhaps you have some ideas on what has helped you before. Or, you know what has helped your friend in the past. Unfortunately, our first instincts can sometimes backfire on us.
Tip 1: DON'T say: “Maybe you should try a new diet.”
Some people may think that individuals with BED may benefit from a diet. But diets will not help people recovering from BED -- and they may make matters much worse. Researchers studying the effects of dieting found that:
- A prolonged period of semi-starvation can lead to emotional distress, irritability and depression.
- Participants who dieted at a severe level were 18 times more likely to have an eating disorder.
- Dieting at an early age can lead to eating disorders later in life.
- While non-dieters restricted their eating in a “normal regulation” pattern after eating a large amount of food, those who had been dieting ended up eating even more food after a very large meal.
Several studies have proposed that, since people on diets tend to ignore their natural hunger and fullness cues, they may be more likely to binge-eat. In summary, dieting has been shown to lead to both emotional distress and an increased risk of eating disorders.
Tip 2: DON'T promote diet culture.
If diets are so harmful, then why are so many people on diets? Well, our society tends to promote what many call “diet culture.” Diet culture promotes stigma and bias against people in diverse bodies, claiming that:
- There is a “right” or “preferred” body type to have and that certain body types are more valued than others.
- The appearance of our bodies determines our health, value and worth.
- Eating disorder behaviors like food rules and food restrictions are normal (even though these behaviors can lead to dangerous eating disorders, as discussed above).
Instead of promoting diet culture, we recommend an anti-diet approach to helping your loved one. This means that you are focused on your loved one and all aspects of their wellness – not just their weight or body size. For instance: Are they getting enough sleep? Do they have enough social support? Are they keeping their health care appointments? Are they making time for fun and relaxation? Wellness is so much more than what our body looks like.
Tip 3: DON'T say: “Maybe you just need more willpower.”
Another instinct that may backfire is this: Well-meaning family members and friends often think, “If I just encourage my loved one to try harder and have more willpower, they could overcome their binge eating.” Unfortunately, what some might call a lack of willpower doesn’t have much to do with willpower at all; BED is a serious eating disorder. When it comes to eating disorders, one cannot just use willpower to change their behaviors or habits.
- Genetics (BED is more likely to run in families) 
- Psychological factors
- Society (cultural messages reinforcing anti-fat bias and diet culture)
Willpower can’t cure an eating disorder, but working with experienced professionals can help someone learn how to address their binge eating behaviors.
Tip 4: DON'T use “shaming” language.
Words can hurt. Could you unintentionally be trying to “motivate” your loved one by using weight-shaming language or comments? Comments like “You don’t need that extra serving” or “Did you gain weight? You looked so much healthier and happier last year” might be perceived as helpful and motivating to you -- but they probably won’t do much to help change someone’s behavior. In fact, these words may increase feelings of shame, ultimately making eating disorder behaviors worse.
Instead, identify helpful, supportive words. Get in the habit of complimenting your loved one’s personality, accomplishments and successes -- not their appearance, body image, size, shape or weight. Read more about the link between binge eating and shame here.
Tip 5. DON'T talk about bodies and weight.
Remember how we talked about the harms of diet culture? We recommend that you completely avoid talking about diets, body image and food.
- Don’t ask your loved ones to diet with you.
- Don’t talk about the latest diet fads.
- Don’t make comments about your -- or someone else’s -- body or weight, even if you think you are saying something positive.
Seemingly harmless comments like “You look so good after losing weight” or “I’m going to gain five pounds just looking at that cheesecake” can be extremely triggering. Shift conversations away from appearance, weight, and body image. Identify other ideas, hobbies or interests to talk about.
What you can say instead
So, how can you support a loved one in moving toward recovery from binge eating and compulsive overeating? These tips offer examples of what you can say and do to help a loved one who is struggling.
Tip 6: DO validate what your loved one is going through.
Your goal when validating another person is to prove that you understand them or “get it.” A simple way to validate someone is to highlight the emotion your loved one might be feeling and say it aloud to them.
- We often follow a validating statement with a “but” statement that negates the validation. So, instead of saying, “I understand why you feel angry but it will turn out fine,” try "I can understand why you are angry because you really wanted that job, because you feel like you meet all of the requirements for the position, and because you feel like the harder you try at things like this the further away you get.”
- To validate your loved one, you must also listen to them without judgment and seek to learn more about their experience. As you listen to your loved one, you may even want to tell them, “I want to understand how this is affecting you.”
- Validating someone does not mean that you agree with them. It is, however, communicating that you understand their emotions and that you are supportive of them and their experience. Validating confirms to your loved one that they are not alone, and you are there for them during a difficult time .
Warning: This might be difficult -- so practice validating your loved one’s words, emotions and experiences, and do it often! If this seems like too much, please know that professional help is available as well as free online eating disorder support groups for friends and family members.
Tip 7. DO implement and respect healthy boundaries.
Boundaries are critical when supporting a loved one in recovery. You can learn how to set healthy boundaries -- and respect when your loved one sets boundaries with you. Discuss setting healthy boundaries in your family therapy sessions along with ways to improve your relationship. A healthy amount of space and limits within a relationship help both parties get their needs met.
Tip 8. DO consider family therapy.
Eating disorders are complicated, and recovery often requires specialized, individualized treatment. Family therapy may help you figure out ways to support your loved one in eating disorder recovery and explore connections and relationships on a deeper, more personal level. Know that family therapy interventions work best when attending family members are ready for collaboration -- not when members are forced or threatened into going to therapy.
Tip 9. DO consider your own therapy.
You may be participating in family therapy, but you can also choose to see your own therapist. Professional support from someone who is knowledgeable about eating disorder recovery can help you understand your loved one’s challenges, setbacks and potential relapses. Therapy can also help you cope with and manage your own difficult feelings and life experiences. You may even want to work through your own relationship with diet culture and weight stigma if that works for you. You can also join one of our free online eating disorder support groups for friends and loved ones.
Tip 10. DO practice self-care.
Supporting someone with a serious eating disorder like BED is difficult and can bring up feelings of hopelessness, depression, fear and guilt. It is important that you practice self-care as a support person. This will help you feel energized and rested. Simple steps like taking a relaxing bath, listening to music, or taking some time for yourself are helpful maintain balance. View our self-care recommendations for friends and family here.
Tip 11: DO educate yourself on binge eating.
As a loved one, it is important to learn as much as you can about BED, including the basics of recovery. This will help you support your loved one in a way that is in line with their eating disorder recovery. Our experts have written numerous articles on BED. Here are a few to get you started:
- What Is a Binge?
- How to Stop Binge Eating: It’s Not About Willpower
- Is Binge Eating Disorder Affecting Your Relationship?
Note: You can’t fix someone else’s eating disorder
It may be frustrating to realize that your loved one's eating disorder is not something you can fix. So, this is my advice for those of you who are concerned about someone who is binge eating: Try not to “fix” their problem. This is a tough one, I know, especially for parents who have always been in the fix-it role. I always say to the friends and family members of patients, if you could fix your loved one’s eating disorder, you would have done it already. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way!
Another problem with trying to fix your loved one’s eating disorder or offer advice is that it pushes you away from them and it may be perceived as judgmental. Also, for most of us, it is frustrating to give advice or offer a solution to a problem that ultimately will not be followed; this can create resentment or anger on both sides. As family members or friends, we might want to fix other people’s problems to alleviate our own anxiety. Let the professionals take this one on.
How to find help for binge eating
Encourage your loved one to seek specialized treatment for their eating disorder if they haven’t sought treatment already. One option is Eating Recovery At Home, our specialized programming for BED. Eating Recovery At Home offers a safe, inclusive healing environment where individuals can address emotions, thoughts and behaviors related to binge eating and body image. Virtual care offers the added benefit of developing and practicing newly learned skills from the comfort and privacy of home, where many of us struggle the most.
With Eating Recovery At Home, your loved one can find freedom from shame around food and their body to live a more meaningful, fulfilling life. Please call us at 866-622-5914 to learn more.
1. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (2021). Binge eating disorder. Accessed November 24, 2023.
2. Trace, S.E., Baker, J.H., Peñas-Lledó, E., & Bulik, C.M. (2013). The genetics of eating disorders. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 9, 589-620. doi: 10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050212-185546.
3. Mental Health Foundations. (n.d.). Resources for parents and caregivers. Accessed November 24, 2023.
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