What not to say to someone with an eating disorder

Eating disorders are a serious threat to mental and physical health. Know what to avoid saying to someone with an eating disorder and how to support them.

If you notice any changes or signs that raise concerns about your friend or family member possibly struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to take action. Start by having an open conversation with them, expressing your care and willingness to help. If their situation appears challenging to manage on their own, encourage them to consider seeking professional assistance.

Remember that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can have life-threatening consequences. However, with the right treatment, most people recover. By supporting someone with an eating disorder, you can help them on their journey to recovery.

Eating disorders are severe mental health conditions that manifest in a variety of ways. At the same time, there is a textbook definition of an eating disorder. Not all of them are formally diagnosed or perfectly match the criteria.

Most eating disorders don’t look like the glorified versions you see on TV (the thin, white young woman). If you don’t work in the field of eating disorders or haven’t experienced one yourself, they can be difficult to understand.

People with eating disorders can’t simply “eat normally” because of the intense cognitive dissonance they experience. Food is both essential for survival and their worst enemy.

They are likely preoccupied with their body size, hyper-aware of how they look in clothes, their weight, and whether people watch them eat. Eating disorders can be a traumatic experience, causing intense physical and emotional distress.

It’s not your job to fix someone with an eating disorder, but you can educate yourself and learn how to support them in their recovery.

But before we dig in, first and foremost, be honest with your words to someone! Don’t tell someone with an eating disorder that they’re not fat or healthy.

These comments may be well-intentioned, but they can be triggering for people with disordered eating or body image issues. For them, “healthy” may not have a positive connotation. It’s best to avoid commenting on body size altogether.

Telling someone they’re not fat also perpetuates the belief that being fat is inherently bad and should be avoided. You don’t know anything about a person’s health just by looking at them, regardless of their body size.

Avoid saying these things to someone struggling with an eating disorder:

1. Well, you look fine!

Don’t comment on someone’s appearance, even if you think it’s a compliment. Eating disorders are not about appearance, and any comment about someone’s body can be triggering and cause significant distress. Recovery is about how the person feels, not how they look.

2. Did you gain/lose weight? You look great!

People in eating disorder recovery are trying to heal their relationship with their food, bodies, and exercise. Focusing on their appearance can make this process more difficult and cause them to feel uncomfortable.

3. You are not too thin

Everyone can have an eating disorder, regardless of size or weight. Comments like these can invalidate and shame people and can reinforce disordered eating behaviors.  Eating disorder support is crucial during this challenging time.

4. You don’t seem to be anorexic

It is inaccurate to say that someone “looks anorexic,” as anorexia nervosa can affect people of all body shapes and sizes. Using the phrase “atypical anorexia nervosa” to describe people with anorexia who are not underweight is more inclusive and accurate.

Additionally, it is essential to use person-first language, such as “person with anorexia,” instead of simply saying “anorexic.” This helps to emphasize that people with anorexia are still people, and their eating disorder does not define them.

5. You’re looking fit and healthy

Eating disorders and recovery can alter people’s interpretation of words. For example, someone with an eating disorder may need to gain weight as part of their treatment plan, so telling them they look healthy could make them associate healthy with “fat” or weight gain. Additionally, you cannot determine whether someone is healthy by looking at them.

6. You just have to eat more

While feeling frustrated or upset when your loved one won’t eat is understandable, suggesting they do so can be counterproductive and triggering. It can also be seen as blaming them. Eating disorder recovery is complex and goes beyond simply deciding to eat. If it were that easy, people wouldn’t need professional help.

7. You just need to eat less

People with eating disorders often experience a loss of control over their eating behaviors. This means that they cannot simply choose to stop restricting, overeating, or binge eating. These behaviors are driven by a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

8. Try cutting down on sugary foods

People with binge eating disorder (BED) already experience extreme shame and isolation. Telling someone with BED to restrict their intake of certain foods, such as bread, sweets, carbohydrates, or sugar, can worsen these feelings. It also sends the message that you believe they should lose weight, which is stigmatizing and hurting and can actually lead to more binging behavior.

9. Would you be interested in trying this diet or trend?

People with eating disorders actively engage in disordered and abnormal eating behaviors, such as restricting calorie intake, exercising excessively, purging with laxatives and diuretics, eliminating entire food groups, constantly checking their appearance in the mirror, and repeatedly dieting. Avoid encouraging people with eating disorders to try diets, as this can reinforce their unhealthy eating habits.

10. I know it’s hard, but please try to stop purging

People with eating disorders who self-induce vomiting often want to stop but cannot. Pressuring them to stop adds to their existing shame, which can trigger further disordered eating and compensatory behaviors.

11. Try adding some exercise to your routine!

People with eating disorders have a complex relationship with their bodies and exercise. Telling them to exercise more can be seen as blaming and can make them feel worse about themselves, leading to more harmful behaviors.

12. Did you take your medication or see your therapist recently?

Saying this to someone with an eating disorder that they need to fix themselves is hurtful and unhelpful. It’s like saying they’re broken and not normal. This only contributes to their shame and makes them feel worse.

Three helpful things to say when supporting a loved one with an eating disorder:

Now that you know what to avoid saying, here are three helpful things you can say to your loved one:

1. “I’m here for you”

This simple statement is one of the most powerful things you can say to someone with an eating disorder. It shows that you care, that you’re listening, and that you’re there for them. It also lets them know that they’re not alone, which is incredibly important for people who are struggling with this isolating illness. Seeking professional treatment at a mental health clinic can be a significant step in the right direction.

When you say, “I’m here for you,” you’re not just making a promise. You’re also committing to being there for your loved one in a practical way. This might mean offering to help them plan, cook, or go out for meals. It also means accompanying them to appointments with their therapist or doctor. Or it could mean being there to listen and offer support when needed.

Whatever it looks like, being there for someone with an eating disorder means showing them that you care and that you’re committed to helping them recover. It’s one of the most important things you can do to support them on their journey to healing.

2. “I’m proud of you for fighting this”

Recovery from an eating disorder is hard work, both physically and emotionally. It takes courage, strength, and resilience to face your fears and challenge your eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.

I know that there are days when it’s tough to keep going. Maybe you’ve had a setback, or perhaps you’re just feeling overwhelmed. But I want you to know that I’m here for you and am so proud of you for everything you’ve accomplished.

Every day that you choose to fight your eating disorder is a victory. Every meal that you eat, every exercise session that you complete, every time you say no to the voices in your head that tell you to restrict or binge, you’re moving one step closer to recovery. Professional eating disorder treatment can provide the necessary guidance and tools to overcome this challenge.

3. “I love you unconditionally”

This reassures them that you love them no matter what, regardless of their weight or eating habits.

This phrase is so important for people with eating disorders to hear because it can be difficult for them to believe that they are loved and worthy, especially when their eating disorder is telling them otherwise.

When you tell them that you love them unconditionally, you are letting them know that you love them for who they are, not their body size or eating habits.

This can be a very healing message or serve as a treatment for someone with an eating disorder, and it can help them to start to accept and love themselves again. It can also give them the strength to keep fighting their eating disorder and to seek the help they need.

A compassionate approach

Change your perspective and approach. Eating disorders are complex and unique mental health conditions, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating with someone who has one. However, there are some general things you can do to be more supportive and avoid saying anything triggering.

One crucial step is to change your perspective on eating disorders, food, movement, and weight. Try to see things from your loved one’s point of view.

For them, food is not just a source of nourishment; it is also a way to cope with difficult emotions or to feel in control. Making critical comments about their food choices, weight, or exercise habits will only make them feel worse.

Instead of giving advice, focus on your loved one’s feelings. Acknowledge their experiences and show them that you care. If you’re unsure what to say, ask them how they’re doing and listen attentively.

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