How to Help a Roommate With an Eating Disorder

A girl sitting in a bathrobe in the bathtub eating ramen

When you’re living with someone else, it’s impossible not to become familiar with his or her daily habits. After all, part of co-living is learning to adjust to different lifestyles. But what do you do if your roommate’s habit is dangerous or threatening to their health? According to research, around 30 million people will struggle with an eating disorder this year. Rates aren’t on the rise, yes. But a consistent 1 percent of the population struggles with anorexia. Another 1 percent with bulimia, and countless others deal with overeating problems. There’s a chance someone you know has an unhealthy association with food, whether you’re aware or not. Being prepared to recognize the problem and know when and how to help is more important than you might realize. Here’s how to help if your roommate has an eating disorder.

Know the signs

“Eating disorders come in a variety of shapes and sizes.“

As Lauren Smolar says, Director of Helpline Services at the National Eating Disorder Association.

“Unhealthy intake of food, out of control consumption, and purging are all basic indicators that something is wrong. Basically, anyone who struggles with body image and relationships with food is at risk.”

That might seem like a pretty general statement. But alarm bells should go off if you notice extreme behavior, so Smolar stresses observation. Significant weight loss or gain, restrictive eating patterns, secretive eating, bingeing and obsession about body weight. And irritability and isolation from friends and family can all be signs that your roommate has an eating disorder.

Say something if you think your roommate has an eating disorder

Once you identify there’s a problem, it’s essential to speak up, and quickly. According to Dr. Deborah Glasofer, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist at Columbia Center for Eating Disorders, eating disorders rarely get better without treatment. You might not want to get involved. Especially if you’re not the best of friends with your roommate. But staying quiet can ultimately be more harmful for a roommate who has an eating disorder.

“Unfortunately, eating disorders are associated with shame, secrecy and even denial, ” says Glasofer. “By voicing your concerns you can play a role in de-stigmatizing these conditions and conveying that recovery is possible.”

The trick, she says, is in the approach. Something that will likely vary depending on your relationship with the roommate who has an eating disorder. Talking about such a delicate topic may make your roommate defensive, shameful or even angry. The key is to express your concerns in a calm, supportive way.

“Find a time to talk one-on-one. Don’t force labels, and try to resist diagnosing,” Glasofer suggests. “Instead, just be honest and caring, but firm in your concern. Simply state what you’ve seen, why you’re worried, and possibly the impact it has on you. If your roommate is your friend, you might share what you’ve notices about how things seem to have changed…”

Get educated

If you think your roommate has an eating disorder, a bit of research can actually go a long way. There are a plethora of resources for those seeking information on this prevalent issue. The NEDA, for example, operates a daily helpline and a number of prevention and treatment program. Additionally, they also have online forums and links to websites where struggling eaters can connect and work together toward recovery. Check the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders blog. Also check The Feed, if you want to learn about and discuss the topic.

Seeking an even more in-depth understanding? The Academy for Eating Disorders, American Psychological Association, and even your current physician can be great assets.

Be a role model

As crazy as it sounds, you are in a unique position to be a positive example as a roommate. By having a healthy relationship with food yourself, you can help your roommate recover. This means no “fat-talking” or focusing on calories or dieting (especially not in front of your roommate). Instead, emphasize eating and exercising sensibly, and acknowledge how hard it can be to change your way of thinking. Being a good role model for your roommate who has an eating disorder can go a long way.

“If you have personal experience changing your mindset. Even on a totally different topic, share it with your roommate,” Glasofer suggests as a way to break the ice.

Seek support if your roommate has an eating disorder

A support system for you and your roommate who has an eating disorder is essential to recovery.

“The support system will be depend on the person,” Smolar explains. “It is so important to encourage your roommate to seek professional help. But you should also think about who else they can trust with this issue. If you’re close, maybe that’s you. If not, maybe it is a family member or friends. But try to get them to reach out to those people.”

When you come face to face with the moral dilemma of whether or not to alert parents or friends. Glasofer suggests erroring on the side of caution.

“If your roommate it unwilling [to seek help], let him or her know you are too concerned not to mention this to others. Invite them to be part of that conversation.”

Have you ever lived with someone struggling with an eating disorder? Tell us how you coped and helped in the comments below!

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