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In light of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I want to shed light on the reality of eating disorders, the stigma that surrounds them, and the support that people suffering from them need.
30 million people in the U.S. will suffer from a diagnosable eating disorder during their lifetime, while many more cases go unreported. People with eating disorders often suffer in silence, and while there is a stereotypical idea of how someone with an eating disorder should look or act, that is simply not the case. Anyone—and I mean anyone—can suffer from an eating disorder.
Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be difficult and frustrating—it is hard to watch people we love hurt themselves and know we can only do so much about it. On top of that, many of us may simply not know what to say to those suffering from eating disorders, or may have a fear of saying the wrong thing given the sensitive nature of this disease.
If you’re supporting someone with an eating disorder, here are four things to keep in mind in your conversations with them.
1. Don’t Say: You look healthy.
To many, this may seem like a normal, harmless comment, or even a compliment. But to someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, it can be highly triggering. The eating disorder mind has a way of turning well-intentioned comments into something negative.
It can hear “healthy” and associate that with being fat, being like everyone else, being normal, or even with someone noticing a change in their appearance. This can send someone into an anxiety or depression spiral, or trigger them to engage in their disordered eating behavior.
What to say instead:
I advise many people I work with to not comment on the weight or appearance of their loved ones and instead focus on discussing inward positive emotional changes.
2. Don’t Say: Any comments related to food.
Another big trigger for someone with an eating disorder is when someone else comments on their food, labels it as healthy or unhealthy, or mentions the amount of food someone is eating. Someone struggling with an eating disorder is already hyper-vigilant about what they eat and is trying to break away from stringent rules or judgments on food.
For someone trying to overcome their eating disorder, eating in front of people is a huge milestone. Commenting on what or how they eat only puts the hyper-focus and fear of eating back into action.
What to say instead: Try to refrain from commenting and instead enjoy the company of who you are with and be in the present moment. If you have concerns over their behaviors surrounding food, set aside a time to share your concerns without judgment and be curious about what is triggering for them and how you can support them when they are feeling triggered.
3. Don’t Say: Why don’t you just eat?
This comment can be very hurtful to someone struggling with an eating disorder, as it is not as simple as just starting to eat or stopping when full. Eating disorders, like any other mental or physical illness, are not a choice. They are an all-consuming disease that can take over someone's life.
Eating disorders are more than just about the food or appearance. There is often a deep wound or pain present, and oftentimes eating disorders become a way to cope with many different aspects of life.
What to say instead:
Try to be supportive and ask helpful questions to gain understanding of someone who may be struggling. A helpful suggestion is to be curious with your loved one about how they are feeling to understand what they are going through instead of passing judgements with comments that can be harmful.
4. Don’t Say: You don’t look like someone who would have an eating disorder.
Like I stated earlier, eating disorders can affect anyone. They come in many forms, and the majority of sufferers are not the stereotypical image we have of a severely underweight, emaciated person.
Anorexia only represents 10% of eating disorders. Bulimia affects three times as many people, and binge eating has the highest incidence. People can experience traits of multiple eating disorder behaviors, going back and forth between restricting, binging, purging, or over-exercising. It’s important to move away from evaluating someone’s health based on their physical appearance.
When someone who struggles hears they don’t look like they have an eating disorder, their mind can twist and distort this comment to mean that they don’t look sick enough; that they don’t need help.
What to say instead:
Refrain from making comments on someone’s body and instead ask, “Are you okay?” “Is there anything I can do to support you?” or say, “I may not understand what you are going through, but I am willing to learn and help you in the best way I can.”
Supporting someone with an eating disorder is challenging on so many levels, but there are things you can say to help people toward recovery. Remember to try not to focus on food or appearance, and instead emphasize how they are feeling, and how you can best support them.
If you feel like the support of a therapist could help you or someone you know, schedule a call with a Two Chairs Care Advisor to learn how we can help you, or book a matching appointment if you’re ready to get started.