An eating disorder can be scary, both for the person experiencing it, and for the loved ones looking on and wishing desperately they can help.
Though people who experience disordered eating often feel isolated by the experience, there are ways family and friends can help them start and continue a journey to recovery.
Because it can be hard to understand exactly what it’s like to have an eating disorder if you’ve never had one yourself—it’s more than simply hating the way you look, or loving food—it’s easy to say the wrong thing when you’re trying to help. But gaining a little understanding about eating disorders can help you get more comfortable with talking about them when you’re worried about someone you love.
No one can pinpoint exactly how an eating disorder begins—and root causes are different for each person—but it’s not something that will go away on its own.
“Eating disorders are a progressive mental illness that can potentially be fatal,” said Bruce Figuered, clinical director at Casa Palmera Treatment Center in Del Mar, California. “Without treatment, 20 percent of people with a serious eating disorder will die.”
Because it’s essentially a stress-induced response, an eating disorder can be brought on by a multitude of factors. Here are just a few things that might lead to an eating disorder:
No matter how minor it seems, an eating disorder is never something to ignore. You owe it to your loved one to connect them with the resources they need as soon as possible. The sooner they receive treatment, the sooner they’ll find the healing they need.
“Approaching a loved one about their eating disorder can be a scary and delicate task,” Figuered said. “The last thing you want to do is make the problem worse.”
How do you make sure you’re being supportive and not inadvertently exacerbating the problem? Here are five things not to say when someone you love is experiencing an eating disorder, along with advice from experts on a better approach:
1. “I thought only skinny girls get eating disorders.”
Eating disorders do not discriminate. Anyone can have one—male, female, young, old, underweight, overweight or average weight. Don’t waste time by assuming that your loved one shouldn’t have an eating disorder because they don’t fit a stereotype.
2. “I’ve noticed some dramatic changes in your weight lately.”
Focusing the issue on their weight will only make the situation more stressful for them.
“Don’t comment on my weight—positive, negative or neutral. Just don’t do it,” said Alicia Raimundo, a public speaker on mental health issues. “If you want to say something nice, focus on my brain, outfit or something I am consciously choosing.”
Emmy Brunner, owner and director of The Recover Clinic, an eating disorder treatment center in London, suggested starting the conversation by asking what’s happening in their life rather than commenting on their body. Ask them how they feel about it and what has gotten better or worse over the past few months.
3. “I’m watching what you eat.”
It might be your instinct to moderate what your loved one eats. This may result in a few small “victories” for you, but ultimately it will lead to a battle of wills that will only make the situation more difficult.
“Too many well-intentioned people have tried helping me by constantly commenting on my food intake and making me feel watched,” Raimundo said.
If you really want to help, make your intervention more about playing on their team rather than fighting against their eating habits.
“You want to encourage the idea that you’re in this together against the disease rather than getting into a battle about what they are or aren’t doing with food,” Brunner said.
4. “I can help you—you don’t need to waste money on professional help.”
Eating disorders are extremely draining to those struggling with them.
“Eating disorders, like many mental disorders, can completely suck the life out of you,” wrote Soulful Seeds blogger Zahra in a post about recovering from her own eating disorder. “It left me just as starved on the inside as I was on the outside.”
Someone suffering to that degree needs professional help. Getting yourself in too deep without professional training will only leave you frustrated and exhausted. Learn and do what you can to support your loved one at home, but always make sure a professional is involved in the healing process.
The best way for you to help is to do research about resources available to them and help match them with the right options.
“If you are suffering with an eating disorder, professional help and advice is vital,” Brunner said.
5. “If you could get your eating under control, everything would be fine.”
Eating disorder survivors and experts consistently emphasize the importance of approaching each situation with patience and love.
“What doesn’t work is pressuring people to change, or giving them an initial ultimatum, which will only make them more likely to hold on to their dysfunctional eating,” psychotherapist and author Karen Koenig said.
“Gentleness and compassion are helpful; criticism and shaming are hurtful and harmful.”
The unexpected presence of an eating disorder can wreak havoc on what was once normal in your life and theirs. Losing the old normal is a hard thing for everybody. But instead of focusing on how things used to be or how they could be, come together with your loved one to find a new normal that works for both of you. Your compassionate approach will go a long way on their road to recovery.
You still might feel like you don’t know what to say. That’s OK. Starting with an open mind and a patient heart is a great first step, but don’t stop there.
“You don’t want to wait for someone to be in a state of crisis before you do something,” Brunner said.
Have that first conversation—it might not go how you planned, but you’ll both be grateful it happened in the long run.
If you or someone you know is in need of urgent help, don’t hesitate. Call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also chat online or text with a representative.
Cara Haynes is an editor and freelance writer who thinks words are probably the most important thing we have. She spends too much time thinking about them, whether that means reading the labels on her shampoo bottles or sending novel-length texts to her husband. When she’s not doing word work, she enjoys doing leg work in the mountains with her goldendoodle, Dobby. You can find her wherever there is chocolate-chip cookie dough within walking distance.