The road to recovery when battling an eating disorder requires an extreme amount of mental, emotional and physical strength. Our family and friends can at times hinder the healing process, without even realizing. It’s not that they have bad intentions, but they may fail to realize the impact of their words which may do more damage than good.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. And after finally gaining courage to share my story after 10 years, I am advocating for continued awareness of this devastating disease.It is important to realize the dangerous statements you should avoid when speaking to someone recovering from an eating disorder, in order to best support his or her progress:
1. “Why don’t you just eat? How hard could it be?”
Avoid giving simple solutions. Trust me, if it was that easy, we would change in an instant. Just like an addiction, it is near impossible to quit cold turkey and our disease is not something we can just snap out of.
Eating disorders are proven to have biological roots. Hearing ‘Why don’t you just eat?’ downplays the severity of our illness–underlying issues such as depression, anxiety, perfectionism and a need for control.
2. “Wow! You’ve lost so much weight.”
When I was in the lowest depths of my anorexia, I would take this as a compliment and motivation to continue on in my ways. The statement only served to fuel my disease and make me feel more in control and powerful. Other days, I would take it as an insult, thinking, ‘Wow, I must have been so much fatter before.’
Remember that recovery is about making healthy and balanced decisions, which can be difficult when others give you positive validation for your weight loss. When you praise us on a changing appearance, you may not realize the dangerous behaviors that lie behind the transformation.
3. “You look healthy and really great now that you’ve gained weight!”
While you may intend this as a compliment, it is often twisted into the exact opposite. People with eating disorders may equate ‘looking healthy’ with ‘looking fat.’ No one is more sensitive to weight fluctuations than we are, so you don’t need to point it out to us.
Even if you are trying to give encouragement, comments about weight or appearance only reinforce our obsession with body image and weight and can easily trigger a relapse. The idea of gaining weight back is terrifying, but necessary step in the recovery process.
Full recovery takes time, so even if we look recovered, we are likely still struggling with mentally and emotionally. Remember that the body can physically recover in a matter of months, but the mind can take years.
4. “I wish I could be naturally skinny and eat whatever I wanted like you. I’m jealous.”
No, no, no, you don’t. As hard as the majority of the population struggle to lose weight through yo-yo dieting and exercise, it can be just as difficult for us to gain weight when we are fighting emotional demons.
5. “You would look so much better with some meat on your bones. Here, take some of my fat, you could use it!”
If you’re trying to support someone, it’s really important to take the focus away from physical appearance. Instead, she says, concentrate on celebrating the person’s inner qualities.
6. “What diet are you on? I want in on your secret!”
An eating disorder is not a diet, it is a disease. Do not ask for weight loss tips under any circumstances.
7. “But you don’t look like you have an eating disorder.”
Realize that not everyone struggling with an eating disorder is underweight or at a low BMI. Eating disorders don’t discriminate, and they aren’t just for emaciated-looking people’s. This is why so many people suffer in silence. People don’t know to reach out and offer help.
It is best not to comment on weight or appearance at all, even if it is well-intentioned. We are already too aware of every inch of our body.
8. “Should you really be eating that?”
We are already self-conscious about our food choices. Don’t shame us for eating something you consider “unhealthy,” as it may be part of our treatment plan. Let us eat the fats, the sugars, the carbs in peace. Also, don’t talk about working off calories in relation to what you’re eating as this can be triggering.
9. “Are you just looking for attention?”
No. Although eating disorders can be a cry out for emotions bottled up, it is more of a personal, rather than public battle.
10. “It’s just a phase all women go through; you’ll grow out of it!”
There is a major difference between disordered eating patterns and a full-blown eating disorder.
11. “You looked so much better before.”
This statement can easily trigger feelings of body insecurity.
12. “I’ve seen you eat…there’s no way you were anorexic.”
Anorexia does not mean the total absence of eating, it is characterized by extreme calorie restriction. You’re really just sending the message: Your problem isn’t real.
Even if we appear to be eating normally in front of you doesn’t mean we aren’t struggling with disordered thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about food and body image.
13. “I could never have an eating disorder—I love food TOO much!”
Trust me, we love food too, hence the obsession. Lighthearted comments made in jest can be offensive to sufferers of a serious disease.
14. “I wish I had your control, discipline, and willpower.”
An eating disorder is a mental illness I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. To an outsider, our lives may look controlled and orderly, but you don’t see the insane rituals and behaviors that constantly consume us.
Part of our recovery process is learning to let go of the obsessions. Please don’t reinforce the ridiculous rules we desperately need to break before they completely destroy us.
15. “You have such a great life. How can you be struggling?”
I grew up with a loving, supportive family, People develop eating disorders for several reasons, including genetics, personality, peers, environment, family and traumatic events. Eating disorders do not discriminate, and they are not a choice.
What you should say instead…
When approaching a loved one about an eating disorder, it is important to communicate your concerns in a loving and non-confrontational way. Eating disorders affect everyone differently. Be prepared for fights, disagreements, and crying. It may take some time before we are willing to open up and admit to having a problem, but friends and family can help the process by:
- Choosing a time to speak to us in private, outside of meal times.
- Expressing why you are concerned about our health and make us feel comfortable knowing it is safe to talk to you. Realize we may fear disclosing obsessive behaviors or illogical feelings.
- Listening in a supportive, non-judgemental way. Ask “How can I best support you?” or “What can I do to help?”
- Remaining positive, calm, focused, and respectful during conversations.
- Focusing on feelings and relationships, rather than weight and food. Try, ‘You seem really happy lately,’ or ‘I’m glad to see you doing your favorite things again.’
- Avoiding placing shame or guilt with critical or accusatory statements. It will only make us defensive. Instead of: ‘You are making me worried.’ or ‘You need to just eat’ try, ‘I am worried about you’ or ‘I’m concerned about you because you refuse to eat lunch.’
- Try not to take on the role of a therapist or dominate the conversation. Sometimes, what we need most is your silent, compassionate presence while you listen to us speak, no matter whether you understand what we’re going through or not.
- Let us know that above all else, you are here for us.
Realize, you cannot force someone to change; we must want it ourselves. No one deserves to suffer in silence, and no one should recover alone. So, when all else fails, just listen, be supportive, and show your love. You may just save a life.