This is part 1 of a two-part series on eating disorders.
It can certainly be difficult when a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder. We often find ourselves not knowing what to say or do. All we want to do is help, but we can become so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing that we do nothing at all, leaving our loved one feeling even more isolated.
When someone close to us is dealing with disordered eating or an eating disorder it is important to educate ourselves. Learn the facts from the myths. Remember that someone doesn’t have to be underweight to have an eating disorder. Also, eating disorders don’t discriminate—they are not only for young, white women—eating disorders affect people of all ages, locations, genders, races, sexual orientations, etc.
It’s also important that we be patient. Eating disorder recovery can be a long and arduous process. We can’t expect any quick or simple fixes, but there are things we can do to help.
Below are 10 pieces of advice on how to help someone with an eating disorder. From someone who has been on the other side and struggled with an eating disorder, these things made all the difference.
1. Be a role model
It can be especially difficult to support someone dealing with an eating disorder if we ourselves struggle with our body image. However, it is important to be a role model. Try to avoid making negative body comments in front of them. Do your best to practice self-acceptance.
2. Don’t monitor
Don’t watch and calculate their food intake or exercise level. They’ll notice and only become more secretive and it causes shame. Avoid comments on who or how much they are eating. Similarly, don’t encourage or discourage exercise. This also means not standing outside the bathroom door in an effort to prevent purging.
3. Avoid using numbers
Whether it be in reference to calories, clothing size, weight, heart rate, or otherwise, do not use numbers. Numbers get the mental calculator running for many struggling with an eating disorder. Calories burned, calories consumed, clothing size, goal weights, etc. can be measures of “success” or “failure” for someone with an eating disorder.
4. Provide conversation during meals
Mealtime is always stressful for anyone with an eating disorder. It’s when all the fears and anxieties come to a head and the point at which behaviors can become most noticeable. Engaging in conversation, even if you have to do most of the talking, is incredibly helpful.
5. Go to the grocery store with them
Having someone help me navigate the grocery store helped me take a big step in my recovery. Offer to go grocery shopping with them, make a meal plan and shopping list before going. This may mean going more frequently and buying less food and later going less often and purchasing more food in a trip. If you’re with someone and they’re getting overwhelmed, the toilet paper aisle can be a safe haven—there is never any food there and can be a much needed escape.
6. Use correct language
The four letter “f” word is okay, but the three letter one is not. Simple enough.
7. Give non-body focused compliments
Rather than giving compliments about their physical appearance, give compliments based on their personality or skills. Even comments that don’t appear to be detrimental can be—hearing “you look healthy” can easily be interpreted into “you look like you’ve gained weight.” Instead express how beautiful their smile is or your admiration for their passion about art.
8. Remember an eating disorder isn’t about the food
It can be difficult to understand because, on the surface, eating disorders are obviously about the food. However, when we go a little deeper it becomes clear that what is going on is much more complicated. Food and exercise are merely the ways in which these issues manifest. It’s not a choice.
Listen respectfully and allow them the time and space to talk. Encourage them to discuss their feelings rather than focus on food or exercise. Use “I” statements to express your concerns and avoid criticism or judgment. Be gentle, yet firm, in your responses. Encourage them to seek help and explain you will be with them every step of the way.
10. Practice self-care
Know your limits. Learn to recognize when you need to step away and take care of yourself. Recovery is a journey and it isn’t always easy. Be sure to practice self-care so you can be the best support you can.
Remember, if you’re worried about yourself or a friend, there are people who can help. Contact the NEDA Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support, resources, and treatment options for yourself or a loved one. The helpline is available Monday-Thursday from 9 am to 9 pm ET, and Friday from 9 am to 5 pm ET. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line for 24/7 support — text “BRAVE” to 741-741.
Also see “Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders,” part 2 of this series.