The Importance of Support During Eating Disorder Recovery

Contributed by Equip
Reviewed by Amy Baker Dennis, PhD, FAED

Equip is a virtual eating disorder treatment program built by clinical experts in the field and people who’ve been there. By providing a dedicated, 5-person care team, Equip delivers at-home, evidence-based treatment to patients of all ages. Equip also offers a free resource hub for individuals and families affected by eating disorders.

Though there are a variety of approaches to eating disorder treatment, experts agree that involving the support of loved ones can greatly impact a patient’s chance at lasting recovery. Eating disorders thrive in isolation, and so bringing in a patient’s village—whether that’s family, chosen family, friends, colleagues, or others—makes it more difficult for the illness to survive.

For a person with an eating disorder, it’s very easy to isolate yourself from others. A support network can make a huge difference in helping someone get through treatment and know that they don’t have to recover all on their own.” – Reggie Ash, LPCC-S, and Therapy Director at Equip.

Why support is essential in eating disorder treatment

Eating disorders consume a person’s brain, requiring them to fight multiple battles every day. Fighting these battles alone isn’t just exhausting, it’s also unsustainable, and makes lasting recovery difficult to achieve and maintain.

The support of family and friends can help in a variety of different ways, including:

  • Making difficult moments (like mealtimes, social events, or triggering comments) more manageable
  • Preventing relapse by recognizing the signs that someone is struggling
  • Alleviating stigma or shame associated with the eating disorder
    Providing accountability for achieving goals and sticking with treatment plans

What the research says about during recovery

Research shows that recovery can be heavily influenced by a patient’s sense of connection to others.1 When a patient’s greater community is aware of the eating disorder and receives education on the steps to combat it, they are able to provide accountability and safe spaces for recovery.

Many treatment modalities involve a patient’s support network. In family-based treatment, which is used for younger patients, families help facilitate mealtimes and normalize new eating habits for their loved one.2 Adults with eating disorders also benefit from their support system being integrated into treatment, and experience improved treatment outcomes.3

One other form of support that can be particularly helpful in treatment is mentorship, when a patient connects with someone who has lived experience recovering from an eating disorder. Research shows that mentorship can be a powerful asset, helping to reduce body dissatisfaction and anxiety and serving as living, breathing proof that recovery is possible.4

Who should be included in a patient’s support network?

There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Each person struggling with an eating disorder has unique life circumstances, family dynamics, relationships, and psychological needs, and their support network will be shaped by all of these factors.

For some patients, especially young ones who live at home, it’s likely that their support network will consist of their nuclear family (e.g. parents and siblings). But for others, their support network won’t include any family at all. Support can look however a patient needs it to look, including:

  • Significant others
  • Friends
  • Coworkers
  • Neighbors
  • People from religious or spiritual communities
  • Chosen family
  • Extended family
  • An acquaintance they feel a strong connection to
  • Mentors who have recovered from an eating disorder themselves
  • Anyone who makes the patient feel heard, seen, and supported

How to build a support system for eating disorder treatment

We’ve covered why social support is so important in treatment, and who can provide it—but how can you actually go about building a network during treatment? Let’s break down the steps:

  1. Decide who will be included. Make a list of the people you want to be involved in your or your loved one’s eating disorder treatment. This can include family, friends, colleagues, community members, and mentors. In making this list, think about not only who you want as a support, but also each person’s availability and whether or not they’ll be able to show up in the way you need them.
  2. Ask potential supports if they can be involved. Set up a time to talk with each person on your list about being involved. Explain to them the importance of social support, why you want them to be involved, and what it might look like. Confirm that they are willing and able to provide the support you need.
  3. Ensure that your treatment program can include supports. While some treatment programs and providers incorporate a patient’s support network into their approach, not all do. At Equip, for instance, loved ones are a core part of treatment and even have their own mentor who has experience supporting someone through recovery. If you’re working with a treatment program that doesn’t automatically include a patient’s supports, talk with them about how this component might be incorporated.
  4. Share resources with your support network. Eating disorders are complex illnesses that can be very difficult to understand—and yet, that understanding can be crucial to providing the help a patient needs. Help loved ones provide better support by sharing educational resources, like this Eating Disorder 101 resource. It may also be helpful for them to join a support group where they can connect with others who are supporting a loved one through treatment.

How can I best support someone in eating disorder recovery?

If you’ve been asked to support someone through eating disorder recovery, your most important job is to listen. Every person with an eating disorder has different needs, different expectations, and different struggles; make space for them to share these with you. Ask nonjudgmental, open-ended questions, and listen closely to the response. Show up in the ways they ask you to.
More resources for supporting a loved one with an eating disorder:

What does loved one’s involvement in treatment look like?

This will vary from patient to patient, and will largely depend on the treatment approach a patient is pursuing. Some treatment programs build the support of loved ones into treatment as a core component. With other treatment programs or providers, patients may need to have a conversation about if and how their support network will be brought into the process.

Some of the ways supports might be involved in treatment include:

  • Providing mealtime support (sometimes plating and supervising meals to ensure everything is eaten, sometimes just providing moral and emotional support)
  • Attending therapy sessions
  • Learning skills and strategies to help the patient through tough moments
  • Educating themselves on eating disorders so they can spot red flags and provide better support
  • Working with the patient and the treatment team to set goals
  • Providing accountability for patients

When someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, ask open questions from a place of curiosity, not judgment, and really listen to the answers. It’s also helpful to educate yourself about your loved one’s particular diagnosis so that you can better understand what they’re fighting against.


[1] Leonidas, C., & Dos Santos, M. A. (2014). Social support networks and eating disorders: an integrative review of the literature. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 10, 915–927.

[2] Rienecke R. D. (2017). Family-based treatment of eating disorders in adolescents: current insights. Adolescent health, medicine and therapeutics, 8, 69–79.

[3]  Fleming, C., Byrne, J., Healy, K., & Le Brocque, R. (2022). Working with families of adults affected by eating disorders: uptake, key themes, and participant experiences of family involvement in outpatient treatment-as-usual. Journal of eating disorders, 10(1), 88.

[4] Ranzenhofer, Lisa M., Mylene Wilhelmy, Annabella Hochschild, Kaitlin Sanzone, B. Timothy Walsh, and Evelyn Attia. (2020). Peer Mentorship as an Adjunct Intervention for the Treatment of Eating Disorders: A Pilot Randomized Trial. International Journal of Eating Disorders 53, no. 5, 767–79.