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Topic: Seeking Help for an Eating Disorder – For You and Your Loved Ones

Question: How do you know when it’s time to seek professional help for the treatment of an eating disorder? And are there any specific recommendations for friends and family who are concerned about their loved ones?

Stephen Wonderlich, Ph.D.

Vice-President for Research, Sanford Research

Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Expert's Response

These are some really good questions, and the answers are made more complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. First, although we’ve been seeing a significant amount of weight gain since the start of the pandemic, this does not inherently mean that individuals have developed an eating disorder and are in need of professional treatment. Weight gain resulting from the struggle between increased access to food and decreased options for safe physical activity has become the new normal for many people.

 However, for individuals who have developed more serious eating behaviors, such as binge eating, it may be time to seek help. Individuals who have partially or fully recovered from an eating disorder may also need to reach out if they notice that their eating disorder behaviors are getting worse. For some people, this may be a return to highly restrictive eating. Others may restart binge eating and exercising in ways that compensate for the episodes of binge eating (e.g., going to the gym for 3 hours a day). Anytime that the shadow of the old disorder presents itself again, it’s best to call a trusted provider for treatment. And it’s important to not wait too long, because the longer you wait and the more that symptoms have an opportunity to entrench themselves, the more difficult it's going to be to get better in the long run.

If your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder and you have engaged in meaningful conversations with them before, it might be time to do it again. Remember, be compassionate but clear about what you see and what your concerns are. Give your loved one space to process the conversation and follow up gently, and not repeatedly. Similarly, if you have concerns about a loved one who has not had an eating disorder previously, approach them carefully and let them know what you see and the nature of your concerns. These conversations may be difficult, but remember it is a process and may take some time. Give your loved one room to think about it, but if you have concerns about medical or personal safety, call a local eating disorder program or mental health center and seek assistance. In the end, keeping an honest and caring line of communication open with the person you care about is a key.