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How to Support Someone With an Eating Disorder

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If you know someone who is struggling with disordered eating or a negative body image, it can be quite challenging to know how you can best support them.

However, understanding how to help someone with an eating disorder, including what to say and not to say, is essential for providing your loved one with effective support. Although it may seem daunting, educating yourself about eating disorders, learning their signs and symptoms, and understanding how to approach your loved one are all key to best supporting them and increasing their chances of sustained recovery.

Let’s talk about what to do if you suspect your loved one may have an eating disorder as well as how to appropriately talk to them about your concerns.

What to Know First: Educate Yourself

Educating yourself about eating disorders is often the first step when trying to help a loved one who may be struggling. Taking the time to learn about eating disorders and their symptoms, as well as common eating disorder misconceptions, can help you gain a better understanding and be able to empathize with what your loved one is going through. Plus, gaining knowledge about eating disorders will help ensure you’re providing adequate support by not giving inaccurate or harmful information related to their condition.

Some common types of eating disorders include:

In addition, in order to combat the stigma surrounding eating disorders and provide optimal support for your loved one, it’s important to break down common eating disorder misconceptions and understand the reality of these conditions. Due to the overwhelming amount of misinformation out there, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Anyone can have an eating disorder, regardless of gender, age, or any other factorThey do not only affect young women or teenage girls
  • Eating disorders are not a choiceYou cannot simply ‘choose’ to have an eating disorder
  • Eating disorders look different for everyoneYou can’t tell just by looking at someone if they have an eating disorder
  • Numerous factors contribute to eating disordersEating disorders are not just about food choices and rigorous dieting

Not sure if it’s an eating disorder? Take our eating disorder screener to know whether you or a loved one may be struggling.

How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder

Supporting someone with an eating disorder requires sensitivity, understanding, and compassion. Although eating disorder symptoms widely vary from person to person, here are some general tips to keep in mind when helping someone who may be struggling:

  • Encourage open communication: Create a safe and non-confrontational space for the person to freely talk about their feelings, fears, and struggles. Be patient and listen without judgment.
  • Support healthy habits: Encourage and support positive behaviors related to eating and self-care which may include promoting a balanced diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep.
  • Avoid enabling behaviors: Be mindful not to inadvertently enable destructive behaviors, such as avoiding participating in restrictive eating patterns or providing reassurance about body image concerns.
  • Respect boundaries: Recognize that the person may not always be ready to talk or accept help, and respect their boundaries while maintaining an open line of communication.
  • Encourage seeking professional help: Suggest seeking professional support from healthcare professionals specialized in treating eating disorders, and perhaps offer to help them research suitable treatment options.

Remember: Recovery from an eating disorder is a gradual process where setbacks can often occur. Try to be patient and understanding with your loved one by celebrating small victories and avoiding unnecessary frustration.

In addition to this, supporting someone with an eating disorder can be highly emotionally taxing, so don’t forget to take care of your well-being as well. If you notice yourself struggling to navigate your role and emotions throughout this process of helping your loved one, don’t hesitate to seek professional support.

How to Approach Someone With an Eating Disorder

When talking to someone with an eating disorder, it’s essential to be as supportive as possible. While approaching them with your concerns may be challenging, knowing what to say and what not to say may increase the likelihood that your loved one will be receptive to your concerns. Here are some guidelines to first consider when talking to a loved one about their eating disorder:

  • Choose the right time and place: Find a quiet and private setting where you can talk without interruptions, and choose a time when the person is likely to be more relaxed and receptive.
  • Express concern with empathy: Approach the person with care and express your concern for their well-being in a non-judgmental way – Use “I” statements to avoid sounding accusatory.
    • Example: “I’ve noticed you seem to be struggling, and I’m here if you want to talk.
  • Be non-judgmental: Avoid making critical or judgmental comments. People with eating disorders often feel shame and guilt, so it’s crucial to create a supportive and non-threatening atmosphere.
  • Use active listening: Listen attentively without interrupting, allowing the person to share their feelings and experiences, and reflect back on what they’re saying to show that you understand and care.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings by asking open-ended questions, as this may help them express themselves more freely.
    • Example: “Can you tell me more about what you’ve been going through?”
  • Express your support: Let the person know that you care about them and that you’re there to support them, and reassure them that seeking help is a sign of strength.
    • Example: “I care about you, and I’m here to support you in any way I can. We can navigate this together.”
  • Provide information: If the person is open to it, offer to share information about eating disorders and the importance of seeking professional help, and offer to help them find resources and treatment options.

What to Not Say to Someone With an Eating Disorder

When supporting someone with an eating disorder, it’s crucial to be mindful of your language and approach, as saying or doing certain things may unintentionally exacerbate their symptoms and do more harm than good. Here are some things to avoid when talking to a loved one about their eating disorder:

  • Avoiding comments about their appearance: Refrain from making comments related to their weight, size, or appearance, as this may contribute to feelings of shame and guilt.
  • Don’t use accusatory language: Avoid using accusatory language that might make the person defensive, and instead express your concern using “I” statements.
    • Example: Instead of “You need to eat more,” opt for “I’ve noticed changes in your eating habits, and I’m concerned about your well-being”
  • Don’t minimize their struggles: Avoid minimizing the severity of their eating disorder or dismissing their struggles, as this can be highly invalidating and unhelpful.
    • Example: Avoid saying “It’s not that bad” or “Just eat normally”
  • Steer clear of negative labels: Avoid using negative labels or judgmental language, such as calling them “lazy” or “selfish,” as this only contributes to feelings of distress, shame, and guilt.
  • Don’t focus solely on food: While food is a part of the issue, understand that eating disorders have underlying emotional and psychological components that need to be addressed for sustained recovery.
  • Don’t offer simplistic solutions: Avoid offering quick-fix solutions or oversimplifying the complexity of the disorder, as this undermines the challenges they are facing.
    • Example: Unhelpful phrases include “Just eat more” or “Just stop”
  • Avoid stigmatizing language: Be cautious of language that stigmatizes or shames individuals with eating disorders, which may include terms like “attention-seeking” or “vain,” which perpetuate misconceptions about eating disorders.
  • Avoid pressure tactics: Refrain from using pressure tactics, making threats, or giving ultimatums, as these are unlikely to be effective and may strain the relationship with your loved one.
  • Don’t ignore or minimize their feelings: Avoid dismissing or downplaying the person’s feelings and experiences, as this can invalidate their struggles and may hinder an open line of communication.
    • Example: Avoid saying phrases like “It’s all in your head” or “Just get over it”
  • Avoid expressing frustration: While it’s completely natural to feel frustrated at times, expressing frustration to your loved one directly may create additional stress. Instead, focus on providing support and understanding.

Find Eating Support With VERY

Having the right support system is essential when recovering from an eating disorder – and it goes beyond just having support from loved ones. Support groups are highly effective for individuals in recovery for gaining community support, developing valuable coping skills, and promoting lasting, successful recovery.

We’ve designed our RecoVERY Community to support individuals with all types of eating disorders with daily psychoeducation, virtual meal support groups, expert coaching, and other beneficial resources to enhance your recovery journey. Join the community for free to see how it can help you transform your relationship with food and body image.

Have questions? Schedule a free consultation to learn more about how our team can best support you and your recovery.