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Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a serious condition where people have an unhealthy relationship with food which can take over their lives both mentally and physically.

It can mean someone is constantly thinking about food and weight, and uses food to meet needs other than hunger. If someone has an eating disorder, they might eat too much all at once, not eat enough, or do things to get rid of the food they’ve eaten, such as throwing up or taking laxatives. A person can be any size and have an eating disorder.

There is no single cause of an eating disorder and it's nobody’s fault that a person develops one. Instead, eating disorders are often a way of managing emotional distress and coping with difficult life events.

Someone who has an eating disorder is also likely to feel bad about themselves and what they look like, and feel as though they don’t have much control over their life. Usually, the person will need professional help as well as support from their friends and family to overcome their eating disorder. Though it is challenging to support someone through an eating disorder, they can get better.

Keeping an eye out

Some people go to great lengths to hide their eating patterns and may deny there is anything wrong. Here are some changes in behaviour you might notice that could be warning signs that something is wrong:

  • Skipping meals, avoiding meal times or making excuses not to eat
  • When they do eat, they have tiny portions or only a few bites of food
  • Trying to hide the rest of the food they’re not eating
  • Counting calories or carefully monitoring the amount of food that they eat
  • Exercising excessively
  • Taking diet pills or laxatives
  • Throwing up, leaving right after a meal or going to the bathroom more than normal
  • Constantly talking about weight or body image
  • Eating excessively large amounts of food at one time
  • Dramatic weight loss or weight gain
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide excessive weight loss

Remember this is just a general guide, and only a medical professional can diagnose an eating disorder.

Healthy conversations

If you're concerned about the eating behaviours of someone you care about, it’s okay to let them know you're worried. People with an eating disorder may be feeling ashamed, guilty, or not good enough, and may be afraid to ask for help. Let them know why you are concerned, and talk with them about what's going on with them.

  • Find a quiet, private space, at a time when neither of you are busy
  • Be calm, gentle and compassionate with them. Listen and don't judge or blame
  • Initially they may deny anything is wrong. Be patient and let them know you are there for them when they're ready to talk
  • Don’t make comments about how they look, even if you want to give a compliment, as this can reinforce the idea of a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ body shape or type
  • Focus on the specific behaviours you are worried about. For example, “I’ve noticed that sometimes you …. When this happens I feel…because…”
  • Ask them about their experience and what they are going through. Don't demand they change or stop. They will make changes when they feel they are ready
  • Listen to what they have to say, take them seriously and don’t ignore the problem
  • Validate their feelings and acknowledge them. You could say, “That must be really hard to deal with” or "Sounds like you're feeling really ..."
  • Try to persuade them to get professional help

Taking action

Although it's difficult seeing someone you love suffering with an eating disorder, remember recovery is possible. Here are some ways that you can help, and some resources to support you and the person you are helping.

  • Help them book an appointment with a GP or a counsellor. If they feel comfortable with it, go with them to their appointment
  • Keep learning - the more you know about their specific eating disorder, the better equipped you will be to help
  • Avoid talking about food or body weight and shape. Instead focus on other aspects of their personality that will help them remember who they are outside of the eating disorder
  • Brainstorm together other things they could do to manage their emotions
  • Remind them of the things they love to do or things they are good at
  • Get support for yourself - this can be a difficult time
  • Know you can't do everything and it's okay to ask for help



Confidential Helpline: 0800 376 633

Youthline provides free phone, text, and email counselling support. Its website has great information for youth dealing with challenging situations including information for young people with eating difficulties.

Eating Disorder Association of New Zealand

Confidential Helpline: 0800 233 269

EDANZ is a society established by parents to provide support and education for parents and caregivers of people with eating disorders. It provides information on how to get help in your region.

Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders

F.E.A.S.T. is an international organisation of and for parents and caregivers to help loved ones recover from eating disorders. They provide information and mutual support, promote evidence-based treatment and advocate for research and education to reduce the suffering associated with eating disorders.  

Mental Health Foundation A-Z

An A-Z of mental health issues, including eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphia, with information on each topic, resources, helplines, and support groups.

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