how to help someone with an eating disorder

How to help someone with an eating disorder:

I am not a licensed therapist; these tips are coming from my own experiences as someone in anorexia recovery, and what helped me most when I was in treatment. If you are in recovery from an ED or currently in one, please regard this article with caution- it may have triggering words and phrases.

Also, this is from the experience of someone with anorexia; eating disorders are an extremely broad field, and anorexia is just one subcategory. Most of these tips are geared towards helping those with anorexia, simply because that is the ED I had and can speak on more truthfully. Please keep in mind that it is not the sole eating disorder out there, nor the only one that needs full support and help.   

Eating disorders (EDs) are extremely tricky. They can twist reality and truths in ways someone without an ED could never imagine. That’s why, when you are trying to help someone with this disorder, you need to be very careful with what you say and do. 

  1. Don’t talk about food, exercise, or body standards unless you are part of their treatment team or it is phrased cautiously.

If you are not trained in nutrition or therapy, and you don’t have experience with an ED, you can very easily say something about food, exercise, or body standards that a person with an ED can drastically misinterpret. 

If you are talking about body image:

  • All bodies are good bodies. No matter what. You should not say that one type of body is better than another (on either end of the spectrum).
  • Don’t encourage them to change their body in order to match their desires. Unlike those without an ED, most people actively in an ED are never satisfied with their body— no matter what they do. They often have body dysmorphia, which completely changes their perceptions of their body. In fact, when I was at my worst in anorexia, my ED still thought I looked unhealthy and that I should restrict. 
    • Body dysmorphic disorder: a mental disorder characterized by the obsessive idea that some aspect of one’s own body part or appearance is severely flawed and therefore warrants exceptional measures to hide or fix it. 
  • DON’T SAY: “you aren’t even fat!” or “you’re so skinny, what are you worried about?”
    • This is wrong on so many levels. First, it reinforces the idea that skinny = good. That is far from the case. Everyone’s body is subjective and unique; it is far from “one-size fits all”, and that “one-size” should definitely not be “thin”.   
    • Second, people with an ED or in recovery probably don’t see their body as it actually is. They feel unsatisfied with and constantly want to gain control over it. So, saying that they shouldn’t have anything to worry about confuses them and creates terrible cognitive dissonance. Their ED is telling them one thing, you are telling them something else— at this point, they hardly know who or what to believe. 

If you are talking about food:

  • If you are not a licensed nutritionist— then don’t. Eyes on your own plate. If the person in recovery or with an ED is in treatment, they likely have their own meal plan that they are following. Telling them what to eat or when to eat is just a terrible idea; it can be misinterpreted, and if it goes against what their nutritionist has recommended to them, doubt and guilt can seep into their thoughts.   
  • If you notice they are not eating or eating very little, don’t say “you’re so skinny, you need to eat!” This is because it creates the notion that once they eat, they won’t be skinny; and once they aren’t skinny, they’ll have to stop eating again.  
    • Instead, offer to share your food or snack with them. If they don’t accept, then try sitting down next to them and eating your food, without bringing attention to them or the fact that you are eating and they are not. Normalize the eating, and talk about something you both like to draw their anxiety away from the food and towards the conversation and a peaceful atmosphere. 
  • Don’t label foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy”. ALL foods are healthy in moderation and balance. Categorizing them as healthy or unhealthy creates a toxic dichotomy of “bad” versus “good” foods; the person can feel that eating “bad” foods makes them a bad person, and vice versa. 

If you are talking about exercise:

  • Again, don’t use it as a method for showing them how they can change their body. They will never be fully satisfied with how they look until they learn to accept themselves, both inwardly and externally.  
  • Rest days are just as healthy as exercise. If they are tired or don’t want to exercise with you, don’t push them. It is likely hard for them to even make the decision to skip exercising, so don’t make that choice even harder. Each person has their own forms of movement that bring them joy and peace.
  • Offer alternate forms of movement, like yoga or walks. This type of exercise not only soothes your mind, but also allows you to connect with each other on a deeper level that other forms of movement cannot permit.  

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