If you know someone who has—or you suspect has—an eating disorder (ED), this post is for you.
Understandably, you want them to recover. You may even feel desperate to help them recover. To do whatever it takes.
For some, you may feel inclined to jump in and say something you think is helpful, or suggest what you think is a straightforward solution. For others, you may have no idea what to say so you either say nothing OR you say something that you’re not all that confident is the “right” thing to say.
In wanting to offer help and suggestions, you clearly care deeply. That alone speaks volumes of love and support. However, even with the best intentions, it’s complicated.
If you lack personal experience or knowledge of what it’s like to struggle with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or other forms of disordered eating, your efforts to help may have the opposite effect.
I don’t say that to call anyone out or make you afraid to say anything!
I say it because I want to help YOU better navigate how to communicate with someone you love who suffers from an eating disorder or is in recovery.
Why I want to help
February is National Eating Disorder Awareness Month. It got me thinking back on my own ten-plus years of struggle with bulimia and disordered eating—and my recovery in 2016!
While I already share my bulimia recovery story to spread hope for anyone struggling with bulimia, it occurred to me that I could also spread advice to family and friends of someone with an eating disorder.
Of course, this advice is based on my personal experience. These are words I believe can truly help and words that have the power unintentionally to do more harm than good.
By no means is this an exhaustive list. And again, it’s very much personal to my own experience and awareness of how an eating disorder can make you think and feel. Still, I hope at least some of what I share makes you more informed to help someone you love. Because that’s what it’s all about.
What NOT to say to someone with an eating disorder
I decided to start with what NOT to say because I think that can be more challenging. People whose hearts are in the right place often say things that can sadly do a lot of damage—or, at the very least, put a barrier between themselves and the person with the eating disorder.
What’s worse, they may never understand WHY what they said wasn’t helpful. I don’t want that to be you.
Also note: If you have ever said any of the following things to someone with anorexia, bulimia, or disordered eating in general, please, please, please don’t feel badly about it. You didn’t know and that’s why I’m writing this post.
Do NOT tell someone with an eating disorder what to eat or how much to eat
Unless you’re a licensed professional or have a relevant degree, please refrain.
What may seem innocent and logical, like “You just need to eat more” OR telling them to eat (or not eat) a specific type of food may, in fact, not be what a professional would recommend.
And, to someone with an ED, food can be terrifying. Your loved one or friend with an eating disorder can’t just flip a switch and suddenly be okay with altering their food intake.
Advising (or forcing) someone to just eat more or eat something they’re afraid to eat is a fast way to get shut out for not understanding or being too invasive. On the flip side, if they reluctantly comply, it could result in purging or over-exercising after eating—and major resentment.
I hope you get the idea that what you might think is a simple solution is, in fact, a seemingly impossible task to someone with an eating disorder. While I’m not saying they DON’T need to eat more or change their eating habits, comments that fall into this category are far more likely to make things worse vs. better.
Do NOT try to dictate the details of someone’s ED recovery
By this I mean, several things:
- Don’t put pressure on them to recover by a certain time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. A process that just takes time, and that amount of time is different for everyone. Do not make them feel bad if it’s taking longer than you think it should, or longer than it took someone else. Focus on baby steps and small victories.
- Don’t tell them how they need to recover. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. For me, counseling didn’t help because my counselor never had an eating disorder and I didn’t think she understood me. For others, one-on-one counseling does work. Or maybe group therapy sessions. Or talking with a dietician who specializes in disordered eating. Or maybe it’ll take time at an inpatient or outpatient treatment center. Heck, for me, this book was my turning point. Don’t assume only one way will help. Be open to other solutions.
- Don’t assume that recovery will be linear. Ups and downs are normal. If they have a relapse, that is part of the recovery process. Trust me. I had many a setback and beat myself up over every single one. Avoid projecting your own feelings of disappointment or frustration onto them. Instead, encourage them to see it was just one day and that doesn’t void all the progress they’ve made up to that point.
Do NOT make them feel like a failure
This goes for relapses as mentioned above, and also when you initially find out about their eating disorder.
Chances are, your friend or family member with an ED already feels like a failure. If your initial reaction is angry or accusatory, or suggests disappointment, inconvenience, shame, etc. that will likely make them regret telling you… and also feel like even more of a failure.
If you do have those feelings, allow yourself to feel them and process them. But understand that your loved one may not be ready to feel and process them with you. As their recovery progresses, look for opportunities to talk about feelings and find closure as part of the healing process.
I know that’s a big ask. Your feelings are valid, too. But, as best as you can, do not act on them in the crucial moments.
Do NOT listen with the intent to “understand” or offer advice
If you start a conversation with the goal of understanding why someone struggles with an eating disorder, it may leave you feeling frustrated. The truth is, you will never fully understand if you’ve never personally struggled with an ED. Same goes for any addiction or struggle that people face. It’s okay to agree that what they’re going through sounds hard. But please, don’t say you understand—unless you truly do.
Or, if you start a conversation on a mission to offer good advice, let me challenge you to consider how that will affect your listening. I’ve come to realize in my own life that—in ANY conversation—if I’m too focused on what I’m going to say next, I’m not really listening.
Also, please don’t feel pressure to give any advice, again, unless you’re a professional or have gone through a similar experience. Not only could it be misinformed, but, oftentimes people suffering don’t want advice. They just want to talk. They just want to feel heard.
Just LISTEN. Let them talk.
Do NOT make it all about YOU
This one’s very similar to the previous statement; however, I want to flesh it out a bit more.
When you’re very close to someone with an eating disorder, one reaction may be to think you failed somehow. How could you have missed the signs? Or, maybe you’re worried that other people might think you’re a bad friend or family member for just letting it happen. Or, possibly you feel overwhelmed and don’t want to deal with the situation because it seems too hard.
Whatever your thoughts are about how someone else’s eating disorder affects YOU, I don’t want to discredit them. How you feel is valid and you’re allowed to feel that pain and struggle. That said, I advise you NOT to make yourself seem like the victim in any way.
The person struggling with an eating disorder is in a very vulnerable spot by opening up to you. If your reaction is to make their situation all about you, don’t expect them to be so open again. In fact, they may want to shut you out completely after that.
If your initial thought is how this affects YOU, I encourage you to pause, breathe, pray if you have that relationship with God, and take the focus off yourself. At least in that moment.
Do NOT act like their eating disorder is a taboo subject
Initially, THEY may not want to talk about it, but if and when they do, please don’t avoid the subject. If it’s a lot for you to take in at that moment, maybe suggest a different time to talk. Just make sure they know you are willing to talk.
Will it be awkward? Probably.
Don’t avoid hard things because they’re hard. Think about your friend or family member and how hard it must be for them to talk about it with you. As much as possible, make them feel comfortable talking with you… even when it’s hard.
Do NOT comment on weight changes or appearance—even if it seems positive
It might seem like “You look better” or “You look healthier” would be a positive thing to say. Not so. For me, I remember hearing those words and immediately a lie formed in my mind. “Oh no! You’re getting fat!” Obviously, that wasn’t true, but it took time for me to stop believing the lies my eating disorder told me for years.
On the flip side, hearing “You’re too skinny” over and over and over does nothing to help the situation. In some cases, it can even be a form of a compliment to someone with an eating disorder. I remember at times hearing that and thinking, “Good! I want to be skinny.”
Focusing on outward appearance—whether it’s progress or lack thereof—keeps the attention on the person’s body. While being comfortable in your own body is part of ED recovery, complementing or commenting on someone’s body does not help with that process. Instead, it can be triggering.
If you want to give a compliment, keep reading for suggestions.
What is okay TO say to someone with an eating disorder
DO complement them on something not focused on weight or food
Make sure whatever compliment you give is genuine. Don’t make something up. Examples are:
“You look happier.” Period. This focuses on their emotions, how much more they’re smiling or joking around, not about how their body looks.
“You seem more energized / Love seeing you so passionate about XYZ.” Instead of something like “You seem less tired,” emphasize and reinforce positive things that, again, aren’t about their body or what they’re eating.
Maybe they’re pouring more of their newfound energy into a specific project or hobby. If so, offer a compliment around that subject.
Or, if you have a close relationship with this person and you can tell they’re making progress in recovery, it’s okay to say, “I’d love to hear about an area you’re making progress in when you’re ready to share.” Notice, you’re giving them the option to say no and also leaving the door open, while also acknowledging you believe they are capable of making progress.
Again, be genuine and offer positive reinforcement that isn’t tied to body or eating.
DO tell them you’re available if they ever want to talk
And mean it.
Offering to chat with no pressure is key. It shows your willingness to listen and also leaves the door open for a future conversation if they’re not ready now. Let them confide in you on their own terms.
DO let them know you’re thinking about them
If they don’t ever reach out to talk with you, don’t take offense. Periodically—but not excessively—send a DM or text message to let them know you’re thinking about them. Stick to something like, “Hey, you were on my mind. Sending you some love / Praying for you.” OR maybe something that ties to your previous conversation so they know you were listening. And then leave it at that. If they acknowledge your message, wonderful. If not, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t very much appreciated.
Be thoughtful without expecting any reciprocation.
DO say you’re proud of them
This one is tricky because you don’t want them to think you’re ONLY proud of them if they’re recovering successfully. Focus on being proud for the fact that they want to recover OR that they’re being open about their struggles OR for the way they’re facing this challenge.
Let them know your proud of them in other areas, too. It doesn’t just have to be about eating disorder recovery. Life still happens around that process. Maybe they got a promotion. Met a financial goal. Tried something new.
If you say you’re proud, let it be sincere and not conditional on how well they’re recovering.
DO congratulate them on recovery victories that THEY share with YOU
If they talk about a win in recovery, it’s okay to celebrate with them! Make them feel good about it! Offer encouragement, while being mindful of all of the above. Victories great and small should be acknowledged.
If you feel inclined to suggest a way to celebrate, don’t center it around food. Go see a movie, have a spa day, check out a new attraction nearby, go on a day trip adventure. It’s possible that food may be involved at some point, but notice I didn’t say go to out to lunch. It’s possible they may be okay with that, but let them take that step on their terms.
Find ways to celebrate without food being the central focus.
DO tell them you love them
Just “I love you.” No strings attached. No other comments necessary. Regardless of where they’re at in their recovery journey… or maybe they haven’t even started. Just say I LOVE YOU.
Now, of course this hinges on the closeness of your relationship. But generally for family and close friends, I would imagine this is appropriate.
Be as generous as you want with the I love yous.
View this as a guide to help you
Please don’t feel like you’re walking on eggshells around someone with an eating disorder.
Again, this post is meant to help you be more mindful and thoughtful with your words and how they could affect someone with an eating disorder. My hope is it will serve as more of a guide.
From my own recovery and reading others’ stories, it does seem that many who’ve suffered with eating disorders have similar thoughts and feelings. Still, I know that every recovery story is different. Every person is different. What I might’ve reacted negatively to, someone else may be okay with hearing. Keep that in mind as well.
If a situation leaves you confused about what to say or what not to say, be honest about that. It’s okay to just not know. Maybe ask the person what subjects are off limits and what is okay to ask.
Be open. Be vulnerable. And you might just find you’ll get more openness and vulnerability back.
Consulting with professionals
Whether or not you find this guide helpful, I also encourage you to reach out to professionals for guidance, too. And by that I mean guidance for YOU as well as for your friend or family member with an eating disorder. Whether it’s from a therapist or treatment center in your area or a credible source online. The more educated you become, the better chance you have of helping—despite not having personal experience.
Of course, if you know someone with an eating disorder who’s at a real life or death point, there’s a greater sense of urgency that could require taking more action beyond just what you say.
Ultimately, though, recovery is something that a person with an ED has to want for themselves. They have to decide to choose life and freedom from that eating disorder. However you are able to help, let me encourage you to be mindful of your words as you do 🙂