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5 Ways to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

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Supporting a friend

By Priscilla Dean, MA Licensed Professional Counselor

Being a parent, family member or friend of someone struggling with an eating disorder is never easy. Many people worry about a loved one’s health, but they also don’t know how they can help. Here are five great ways to support someone you care about who may be struggling with an eating disorder:

1. Don’t assume your loved one’s primary goal is to “get skinny.” While a lower weight often can preoccupy the thoughts of someone with an eating disorder, there are many other reasons why your loved one may be restricting food intake (those with anorexia) or purging (those with bulimia). These reasons can include: an obsession with “healthy” or “raw” foods/diets; high anxiety about eating anything “not pure or clean”; the desire to be thin not for “thin’s sake”, but in order to disappear or not to be noticed by others (eating disorders are often co-occurring with depression); or extreme body and self-hatred (i.e. “I don’t deserve to eat”).

2. Be respectful of the struggle to eat. If you haven’t ever struggled with disordered eating, a “cure” might seem very logical to you. Just eat more, right? Saying things like, “I could never have an eating disorder, I love to eat too much,” or “Don’t you like food?” is disrespectful. Comments like this are usually borne out of good intentions or a desire to help, but are actually ignorant statements that can result in hurting your loved one.

3. Don’t fixate on food at meals. If you are eating with a loved one that struggles with an eating disorder, don’t constantly refer to the food. Don’t ask if the person enjoys it, if they want more food or why they don’t like a particular type of food. Eating a meal with a group of people or even with one other person is usually stressful and anxiety inducing for someone with an eating disorder. Instead, let them know how much you enjoy their presence. If they made the food, say how impressed you are with their cooking skills. This will put less pressure on your loved one during the meal experience. If you notice your loved one is not eating at all or eating very little, don’t use mealtime to point it out. Wait until mealtime is over and gently ask if the earlier meal was stressful for them. If they deny it, don’t press the issue. If you notice a pattern continuing to occur, talk to their therapist or someone in charge of their treatment. If they are not in treatment and are continuing to restrict and/or purge after meals, get them in treatment right away. This disorder can be fatal. Don’t wait.

4. Know your loved one’s anxiety triggers and take them seriously. Every person who struggles with eating has different triggers. As a therapist who has treated many clients with eating disorders, triggers can vary as much as client’s personality traits. It could be carbs, sugar or typical “junk foods” that cause them great anxiety. However, it could also be eating in the cafeteria at their school, with a particular family member or friend, at restaurants or only eating with people of a certain sex. They could also have issues with food labels. Find out what they need to feel less anxiety about eating. Provide it if you can, but more importantly, acknowledge it in a supportive way.

5. Educate yourself. There are many helpful books available about eating disorders and for parents of children who struggle with disordered eating, such as: “The Rules of ‘Normal’ Eating” by Karen Koenig, “When Your Child has an Eating Disorder” by Abigail Natenshon,”Healing Your Hungry Heart: Recovering from Your Eating Disorder” by Joanna Poppink, and “The Secret Language of Eating Disorders” by Peggy Claude-Pierre. When you understand the facts of this disease, compassion and understanding can more easily drive your behavior.