“Are you sure you want to wear/eat that?”
“Someone’s hungry today!”
“Have you lost weight? You look great!”
“Should you be eating that?”
“Oh you’re eating ______? That’s not good for you.”
“Have you been on a diet/ you should go on a diet.”
How many times have you heard (or said) things along these lines before? I’d try to count but I think I’d lose track! In today’s diet-culture centered world, comments like these that perpetuate negative sentiments around food and body are normalized, making their way into everyday conversations, family get togethers and holiday reunions. Even if these comments are made without malice, they can be triggering – especially for someone struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating.
What are Eating Disorders and what is Disordered Eating?
Because eating disorders are so stigmatized in our society, those who are struggling often feel pressured to hide their behaviours and feel ashamed. Many are NOT in emaciated bodies, and think they are not “sick enough” to get help. Eating disorders are the 2nd most deadly mental health condition, only after opioid substance addiction (statistics & research shared by NEDA).
Disordered eating, on the other hand, is not a diagnosis, but is rather a descriptor of behaviors that involve disordered relationships with body image, exercise, and food. Disordered eating can (but not always) lead to eating disorders and can be exacerbated/triggered by struggles related to identity, self-image, or trauma.
Supporting someone with and Eating Disorder/Disordered Eating
A big part of supporting someone with an eating disorder or disordered eating is to begin with self-reflection and see what kinds of biases we may have.
It’s important to explore what assumptions are being made and pinpoint one’s misunderstandings. This can often be easier said than done – after all, we are all subjected to diet culture and fatphobia on a consistent basis!
After challenging our socially-instilled beliefs, we can reframe how we look at food, bodies, and diets without causing harm. A great first step to this is to shift our perspectives to be more weight-inclusive.
This can include:
- Recognizing that weight gain is often NECESSARY for so many – and is the body’s natural response to starvation or inconsistent intake REGARDLESS of their body weight and size. It’s a protective mechanism (including people in larger bodies). It should not be criticized or commented on.
- Reminding ourselves that being skinny does not mean that one is healthy and that being fat does not mean that one is unhealthy.
- Using weight inclusive language ie. not demonizing being fat or glorifying being skinny
- Focusing on diets that support wellbeing rather than weight loss. Remember, wellness is not just about the physical – it encompasses the social, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of health as well!
The Do’s and Don’ts of Supporting Others
Now that we’ve gone over the basics, we can jump into the do’s and don’ts of supporting someone who is affected by eating disorders/disordered eating. This is not a hard and fast list of rules and definitely does not cover everything but can help guide you and provide a foundation for these difficult situations. With that being said, let’s get into it!
- Exercise patience: changes in beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours take time! This is important for both yourself and your loved one to remember. They may not respond how you’ve hoped they would and that is okay!
- Eat together while engaging in a distracting activity such as watching TV, playing games, telling stories, etc. Additionally, avoid talking about the food itself when eating together (helpful approach shared by Kelty). If you live alone or just want an alternative meal support system, there are wonderful content creators out there who also you can check out for virtual meal support:
- Educate yourself: learning more about all the complex aspects of eating disorders will help you better understand what they are going through and provide better support. Some great places to learn include:
- Learn about what’s available: do some research on available resources so you can make things less overwhelming for the individual. There are many wonderful resources out there, including:
- Encourage them: be there to cheer them on with comments that are unrelated to their food or appearance – recovering from an eating disorder/disordered eating is hard work! Some examples include: “I see how hard you’re trying – I’m so proud of you. More importantly, I hope you’re proud of yourself.” “You’re doing great! Recovery isn’t linear and setbacks are normal.” (words of encouragement from EDCare) “I’m here to support you on the good days and the bad – you are not alone.” (words of encouragement from the Emily Program)
- Help them get professional help: eating disorders can be overwhelming to tackle – the best people to help are professionals who have the skills, knowledge, and resources.
- Steer away from comments that touch on someone’s appearance, weight, or eating behaviours: These can be triggering – if you’d like to give someone a compliment, try to focus on other wonderful aspects of the individual such as their fantastic achievements or award-winning personality!
- Voice your concerns if you see warning signs: let them know that you care about them and that you want them to be well! Pick a good time/place and do so in a way that is based in love – rehearsing what you want to say ahead of time may make this easier.
- Be calm, confident, consistent, and compassionate while creating a supportive environment (helpful approach shared by Kelty).
- Use “I” statements, for example: “I care about you and I am going to support you through this so that this eating disorder doesn’t take away any more of your life”.
- Take care of yourself: supporting others can be difficult. Make time to take care of your own needs and ensure you are supporting your own well-being too!
- Be judgemental: being judgemental may make the person feel more ashamed of their behaviours and instill further negative thoughts.
- Shame or blame: eating disorders are not a choice and aren’t based on vanity. They are often rooted in emotional challenges that contribute to harmful behaviours, and shaming or blaming someone with an eating disorder is just adding fuel to the fire.
“You should try harder to eat, it’s not that difficult.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be scrolling on social media so much then.”
3. Give simple solutions: again, eating disorders are extremely complex, and providing simple solutions can minimize the individual’s actual experience.
“Just accept your body for how it is.”
“Just don’t look at the calories.”
4. Give ultimatums: forcing someone into treatment further adds stress to the situation and promotes guilt, shame, and secrecy.
“If you don’t get help, I’m going to break up with you.”
“You have to go into treatment. I can’t love someone like this.”
Eating disorders and disordered eating are not easy things to tackle and supporting someone affected by them isn’t much easier. The most important thing is to make sure those who are affected feel loved and supported before moving forward – baby steps! To continue exploring diet culture, intuitive eating, and more, check out some of our other blogs and subscribe to our mailing list by entering your email address below.
If you struggle with disordered eating, chronic dieting, or body image, please email me! I can either help you or refer you to someone who can.
This blog was written with the help of UBC dietetics student, Gilbert.
“Are BMI Scales an Accurate Representation of Health?” [Retrieved March 8th, 2022]
“Disordered eating vs. Eating Disorders” [Retrieved March 8th, 2022]
“EDCare” [Retrieved April 16th, 2022]
“Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta” [Retrieved April 14th, 2022]
“Fighting Fatphobia” [Retrieved March 8th, 2022]
“Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder” [Retrieved March 8th, 2022]
“How the Fashion Industry Impacted My Body Image” [Retrieved March 8th, 2022]
“How to Help a Loved One” [Retrieved March 8th, 2022]
“Intuitive Eating & Health at Every Size® (HAES) Resources” [Retrieved March 8th, 2022]
“Kelty Mental Health” [Retrieved April 14th, 2022]
“Looking Glass” [Retrieved April 14th, 2022]
“Mental health indicators” [Retrieved March 8th, 2022]
“National Eating Disorders Association” [Retrieved April 14th, 2022] https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
“National Eating Disorder Information Centre – General Information” [Retrieved March 8th, 2022]
“PEDAW: Eating Disorder Awareness Week” [Retrieved March 8th, 2022]
“Sheena’s Place” [Retrieved April 14th, 2022]
“Silver Linings Foundation” [Retrieved April 14th, 2022]
“Statistics & Research on Eating Disorders” [Retrieved April 6th, 2022]
“The Emily Program” [Retrieved April 16th, 2022]
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