Eating Disorders (ED) are complicated. From their glamorization in the media to the daily diet culture’s influence upon us, they can be very misunderstood. Tragically, Eating Disorders are actually the most fatal mental illness that exists. Many people don’t know these 8 ways to support a loved one suffering from an Eating Disorder. This takes a toll on the individual as well as their friends, partners, family, and anyone who makes up their support system. Below are 8 ways to support a loved one who is suffering from an Eating Disorder.
#1 Understand that they can’t “just eat” with an eating disorder
For most of us, when we are tired, we go to sleep. When we have to use the bathroom, we use the bathroom. When we are hungry, we eat. For someone struggling with an eating disorder, it’s not that simple. There is an internal battle. It is a psychological, emotional, and physical dilemma. Eating is layered with internal criticism and guilt. They are at war with themselves, a war between their thoughts and their most basic human needs.
#2 Eat well-balanced meals with them
When I talk to clients ranging from adults who have been battling an ED for years to teens who are new to the process, a common support technique they often share with me is this: Nothing is more helpful than providing support during meals by engaging in the process with them. This doesn’t mean staring at them and telling them to finish what’s on their plate. Rather it is being in the experience with them by eating your meal at the same time. I believe this not only provides connection during a very challenging time but also models that eating is “okay” and “normalizes” what the ED has skewed for them.
#3 Please don’t diet around someone with an eating disorder
Just don’t do it. This is probably the least helpful thing you can do when a loved one is in recovery from an Eating Disorder. This is harmful certainly for them, and probably even for you. If you’re confused as to why, please see #4.
#4 Educate yourself on Diet Culture, other approaches to food, movement, and body image
Diet Culture permeates every aspect of our society. This includes thin privilege and fatphobia. It blames individuals for their body weight and body size, without taking into account social determinants of health, genetics, socio-economic status, access, ability, the list goes on. We can talk about how diet culture is one huge, financially backed, oppressive system at play another time. In the Eating Disorder Recovery world, we take an anti-diet, Health at Every Size, and Intuitive Eating Approach. In the most concise description possible, these theories mean learning to listen to one’s hunger and fullness cues and eating a wide variety of foods. This involves moving away from food being deemed “good or bad”, moving away from bodies being deemed “good or bad”, and moving our bodies in ways we find enjoyable. And instead moving a focus onto other aspects of health outside of weight alone.
#5 Try to comment on their internal characteristics rather than their body
As well-intentioned as your statement may be, it’s not a great idea to make any statements about their body. It’s likely not helpful to say, “you look worse”, “you look better” or even “you look healthy”. If you must comment on their appearance, try “you look so much brighter” or “you seem to have much more energy”. Otherwise, feel free to comment on their kindness, hardworking nature, creativity, intelligence, or whatever you admire about who they are as a person!
#6 Know you can’t fix it alone
Sadly, you can’t love someone out of an Eating Disorder. You can’t tell them they are beautiful and make them not hate their body. What they see in themselves is different from what you and I do. You can offer support, but you can’t fix it for them. Encourage them to keep their therapy appointments. Their dietary appointments. Their medical appointments. And maybe even group therapy or more intensive treatments. Yes, it is a lot. And they have to do it. The ED is more powerful than any one of us alone and can take a team to overcome it.
#7 Help them differentiate between ED voice and authentic self voice
Depending on where your loved one is in her or his recovery process, this tip may land differently. When someone is struggling with an Eating Disorder, it often can be helpful to conceptualize it by considering two voices: The Eating Disorder Voice and the Authentic Self Voice. The Eating Disorder voice is hyper-focused on food, bodies, and self-hate. It values thinness over everything else. The Authentic Self Voice knows their worth is more than that. In my work with clients, this is a big part of the process. As a caring loved one, you can help them also build insight into which voice they’re operating from for themselves.
#8 Seek your own therapy or support
To see a loved one suffering is really, really tough. You likely will experience feelings of concern, frustration, resentment, confusion, and powerlessness. This is normal and incredibly uncomfortable to cope with. You deserve support too. Additionally, one approach to Eating Disorder therapy (for example: the Maudsley Method) suggests Eating Disorders are a symptom of a larger dysfunctional system. With this approach, your own support and growth can certainly help!
While there are similarities within the Eating Disorder recovery process, it is also individualized for each person. These 8 tips may help give a framework for support, but they are not substitutes for asking your loved one what support they need from you. The best support is creating a space for open and honest dialogue. You are going to make mistakes and that is okay! In the ED voice’s world that suggests worth is tied to body image or the only thing one can control is their food intake, show their authentic self how much they mean to you by being open to listening.
Article written by Jessica Dattalo, LCSW