What NOT To Say To Someone With an Eating Disorder?

Caring for someone who has an eating disorder is hard. Being the one who suffers from this kind of mental health issue is even more challenging. You must know how to treat them with their best interest in mind. In this blog, you’ll learn more about eating disorders in general and about dos and don’ts when interacting with your loved one who might have this issue. If you are suffering from an eating disorder, you might find it helpful to use the tips in this blog to let your loved ones know how you’d like them to interact with you!

Why Is What You Say Important?

To quote a popular TV show, “Words cut deeper than knives.” While this is true in general, it’s crucial to be careful what you say around someone dealing with a mental health issue.

If they aren’t receiving professional help

Many people struggling with eating disorders use binge eating or restricting food as a form of control and a way to deal with their emotions. Make a remark that triggers negative feelings, especially a sense of not being understood or good enough. It might push them further into their unhealthy habits. What you say might make them feel uneasy, not good enough and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. When someone with an eating disorder isn’t yet receiving professional help, they might be more susceptible to misinterpreting your attempts to be helpful and supportive.

More generally, the risk is that they might feel not understood, helpless and alone. This is likely the opposite of what you may want to achieve when talking to a loved one going through eating issues.

If they’re in recovery

Recovery can be a very vulnerable time. Reaching out for help takes a lot of courage, and acknowledging you have an eating disorder comes with many mixed feelings. For example, a person might want to get better but fear putting on weight simultaneously. They might want to become healthier but feel like they’re losing their identity every time the numbers on a scale increase. Suppose you aren’t careful with your words. In that case, you can make their recovery more challenging and make them feel like you’re trivialising their struggles. The best way to support a loved one in therapy is to be as understanding and empathetic as possible.

Good communication can go a long way – it might help you understand what your loved one is going through and find the best ways to support them. At times this might involve simply being there for them, resisting the urge that you should be ‘doing’ something to affect them, even if your intention is positive.

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What’s It Like To Live With an Eating Disorder?

Finding out that your loved one has an eating disorder can be terrifying but being the one who suffers from it is the real challenge. First, there are a lot of misconceptions about eating disorders. Many people believe that an eating disorder is about having a poor body image or simply wanting to lose weight. Although this can be a factor, it isn’t its key feature. For many sufferers, an eating disorder starts from not feeling good enough and trying to handle their emotions by under or overeating. It might also be a way to deal with a history of complicated relationships or a traumatic event such as sexual assault or bullying.

For a lot of sufferers, living with an eating disorder is like being trapped in a nightmare because food is everywhere, and it can trigger feelings of worthlessness. For people with anorexia, food might be a symbol that they’ll never be thin enough. Instead, for someone with a binge eating disorder, food might represent both a temptation and a reminder of when they let things get out of control.

An eating disorder is like battling your own demons daily. It’s like having a voice inside your head that thinks you’re a failure when you’re getting better, even if you want to improve. It’s like a rollercoaster with constant ups and downs. For instance, someone’s binge eating disorder might mean feeling elevated when they use food to deal with negative emotions and then ashamed when they realise how much they’d eaten.

What Not to Say to Someone with an Eating Disorder?

1. Avoid commenting on their appearance

If you witness your loved one putting on weight, it might be tempting to comment on their appearance. You’re happy they’re getting better, after all, and believe this might motivate them to progress further. However, gaining weight is only some part of success for people with eating disorders, if it’s even perceived as success at all. The real challenge is getting rid of the voice that tells them they aren’t good enough when they put on weight which won’t go away until later in their recovery journey.

2. Don’t comment on their eating habits

Knowing your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder might make you feel uncomfortable and worried about their safety. You might want to cope with your fear by trying to understand as much about their condition as possible. However, asking your loved one why they eat so little or so much, or why they appear to be particularly picky with food, will only make them feel more ashamed and less likely to open up. Offering advice on what to eat or what not to eat might be a bad idea as well. People with eating disorders likely already know their diet isn’t healthy. Pointing it out can again trigger feelings of guilt and shame.

3. Don’t express your thoughts without thinking them through

If your loved one has an eating disorder, it’s normal to want to ask them ‘Why can’t you just eat?’ or ‘Why can’t you just stop binging?’ This is because a part of you hopes things were this simple, but the reality is, they aren’t. Eating disorder isn’t just about food. Your loved one might be struggling with low self-esteem, poor body image, and more. Think about it, if things were that simple, your loved one would not be struggling with an eating disorder in the first place.

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What to Say to Someone with an Eating Disorder?

1. Offer them support

If your loved one suffers from a mental health issue, it’s natural to feel helpless at times. But if you let these feelings dictate how you act, it might only hinder their recovery. If you want to help them, try something simple like; ‘I’m here if you need me’. It will make them feel supported without giving them the impression that their every move is constantly being watched.

2. Tell them that you care about them

Developing an eating disorder often stems from feeling unlovable, so a simple “I love you” can go a long way. You don’t even have to tell them with words; you could always offer to make them tea, do their laundry when they’re tired or do anything that will brighten their day. Feeling loved and cared for sends the message that they’re accepted no matter what.

3. Empathise with their situation

An eating disorder can be incredibly difficult to understand unless you’ve suffered from it yourself, and if you don’t feel like you understand, that’s okay; most people don’t. It’s essential to acknowledge their struggles without judgement. For example, you could say something like, “Although I can’t even begin to understand how you feel, I know this must be hard for you.”

4. Help them see their worth

Many eating disorder sufferers might feel like their mental health condition is consuming their life and like they don’t know who they are anymore. Saying things such as, “You’re more than your eating disorder” can serve as a reminder that even if they have a setback, it doesn’t mean they’re a failure.

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If you’re struggling with an eating disorder yourself or with the impact it has on people you love, we can help! Contact us for a free 15-min consultation

Additional resources:

Eating Disorder Therapy in London & Online

17 people describe what it’s like to live with an eating disorder


More Reading 

How to Recover from an Eating Disorder?

What is Binge Eating Disorder (and how to start managing it!)

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