How to help a loved one with an eating disorder
Knowing that someone you love and care about is suffering with an eating disorder or with other issues around food, you may worry about how best to support them. Or perhaps if you are someone that is suffering with an eating disorder or have issues with your relationship with food - you may wish that your loved ones, friends and relatives knew how they could help you most.
Here are some tips for those that are supporting someone that has or may have issues around food or an eating disorder:
1. Stop talking about weight, appearance and our bodies
As a society we focus far too much on weight, appearance and the shape of our bodies. It is very common for us to see someone we haven't seen for a while and to comment that "you have lost weight" - intending it to be a compliment. However, any comments around weight or appearance can just reinforce eating disorders and unhealthy patterns of eating. Telling someone that is anorexic or orthorexic that they "are too thin" can even validate their food-restriction, showing them that they have been successful in not eating. Even simple comments such as "you look healthy" or "you look well" can be misconstrued by someone with issues around food - with them assuming that you think that they have "put on weight". It is best to stay away from the topics of weight, appearance and body shape completely. Sometimes the person with the issue around food will bring up the topic of their weight - because it is so frequently on their mind, they will want some validation of their thoughts from others - it is key that you don't engage in these conversations and move away from the topic to discuss something else instead.
2. Food may come up but it is important not to dwell on it either
When someone is struggling with an eating disorder, their mind is often very focused on food. Often the person suffering will themselves want to talk about food, diets, cooking or things like calories. Is important for you not to allow the focus of the conversation to centre on these topics. Do not talk about any diets you may have heard about or go into any in depth discussion around food. When an individual is struggling with their relationship with food, they may interpret what you say in a way that makes their eating disorder worse.
3. Just telling someone to eat more/less or asking why they don't just eat/stop eating - won't help
Many people struggling with bulimia or binge eating disorder are often told that in order to lose weight, they just need to eat less and exercise more - however this is very destructive advice for these individuals. Often it gets them trapped in a cycle of starving themselves (to try and lose weight) and then bingeing (because they are so hungry from the restriction). Similarly, telling someone that is starving themselves just to eat more - is often unhelpful - and it can in fact drive them to want to starve themselves more, believing that you don't understand them or their goals.
4. Provide an empathetic and non-judgmental listening ear
The best way you can support someone with their difficult relationship with food, is to be there to listen to them. Check in with the individual to see how they are doing regularly and in particular, ask them how they are feeling. People struggling with their relationship with food can end up feeling very down or anxious and having someone to talk to - who will listen in a non-judgmental and empathetic way, is really helpful. Whilst you may feel the need to try and problem solve or offer solutions - you should not seek to provide them any advice on their issues around food e.g. recommending that they follow a certain diet or that they take any other practical steps can often be very counterproductive. It is important for them to seek out a professional for advice. Also do not use any words that the person speaking to you doesn't not use e.g. don't say, I think you are anorexic/bulimic or I think you have been restricting your food (if the individual does not mention these things themselves). Just ask open questions around how the individual is feeling and reflect back the language that they use when they speak to you.
5. Let them know that you are always there for them should they want to talk
Sometimes you may find that your loved one just shuts down when you try to talk to them. It can helpful to remind them that you love them - and that you are always there to support them and listen to them, should they ever want to talk about anything. It is key that they feel that you are on their side and that you are always there should they want or need to talk.
6. Create opportunities to spend time together that don't involve food
People with issues around food can avoid social situations that involve eating. It can be helpful to offer your loved ones opportunities to spend time with you that don't revolve around meal times and eating.
7. Encourage them to seek professional help as soon as possible
Eating disorders become less easy to treat, the longer the individual suffers with them. So the sooner an individual gets help - the more likely they are to recover (and to recover more quickly). Whilst you can't force anyone to get professional help, you can suggest that you know of certain people/services who/that can help them to feel better (again don't talk about food or weight here). I always offer a free telephone consultation to anyone that is worried about their relationship with food - and many professionals will offer the same, to give your loved one comfort and reassurance that they are understood, that we as professionals are on their side - and that we can help them to feel much better.
8. Don't buy them clothes
We often innocently give clothes as a gift, however people with issues around food can read a lot into the size of the clothing that you buy them. If the clothes that you buy them are too tight or small - this can also trigger them to stave themselves and not eat or to binge. It is safer to opt for other gifts for your loved ones with eating disorders.
9. Give them hope for recovery without having any expectations around timeframes
It is key to give your loved one the message that they can feel better. Again without focusing on food or weight - just communicating that your loved one can feel better and be happier - can give them hope and inspire them to seek out help. It is important however not to tell them that you expect them to get better within certain timeframes - as everyone's recovery journey is different. Many clients have told me that they have felt pressure from loved ones to get better really quickly once they have started treatment and it is important not to put any pressure on your loved one - they will recover at their own pace (and probably more quickly without any pressure to do so).
10. Take care of yourself and your own mental health
When you are supporting someone that is struggling with their mental health or their relationship with food - it can have an impact on your mental health and well-being too. You can find yourself feeling more anxious or stressed or suffering with a low mood, as you worry about your loved one. It is important for you to take care of yourself too and to seek out professional help yourself, should you notice that you are worrying about your loved one a lot or not feeling great day-to-day as a result of what they are going through.