Eating disorders (ED) are complex mental health conditions characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food and body weight. They manifest in behaviours like restricting food intake, binge eating and purging and are often accompanied by distorted thoughts about one’s physical appearance. The exact causes of eating disorders are not known but societal pressure to attain narrow beauty standards certainly does not help. They are more about underlying emotional distress than they are about food. Understanding the complexity of eating disorders, promoting awareness, and challenging harmful societal messages are crucial steps in supporting those who struggle with these conditions. Let’s talk about some things you should never say to or about people struggling with eating disorders.
Any comment on weight and appearance
Many people with eating disorders are preoccupied with thoughts of food and body image. Commenting on weight and appearance whether yours or theirs just reinforces this thinking. Talking about weight and appearance, places focus on them and reinforces their importance which can be triggering to the person. Don’t even talk about something as innocuous as saying they look healthy because it may not carry the positive connotation you think it does. Don’t tell them they’re not even fat, all this does is reinforce the idea that there’s something wrong with being fat. As a general rule, not just for someone with an ED, you should consider refraining from complimenting people on how skinny they are. Focus instead on aspects of them as a person and their personality. Maybe talk about how happy they look or about a project you’re working on. Anything but weight and physical appearance.
Why don’t you just eat?
It may seem logical to tell someone who is denying their body much-needed nourishment to just eat. This appeal to reason does not work because that’s not how mental illnesses work. Some people with diseases like anorexia nervosa are terrified of eating. They know even better than you that it isn’t logical, but still, it doesn’t change anything. This is a complex problem with biological, genetic and socio-cultural elements at play. Asking them why they won’t eat is not helpful, all it does is shame them for something that feels out of their control. Another related one is, why don’t you just eat healthy and exercise? First, this perpetuates the idea that a slim body is ideal. Second, it assumes people with an ED are choosing to have such an unhealthy relationship with food in the first place.
Why don’t you just stop throwing up?
Self-induced throwing up is a daily struggle for many people with anorexia and bulimia. Asking them why they won’t just stop is extremely unhelpful. All it does is shame and guilt them which can trigger further binge and purge episodes.
I wish I had (Insert ED)
One common joke people like making is about how they wish they had the willpower to have an eating disorder. There’s nothing funny about having an eating disorder. Don’t praise their willpower either. Having an ED can be a painful, lonely experience. It’s a debilitating condition that takes over people’s lives and sometimes leads to their deaths. Don’t say things like I wish I could exercise every day like you or I just love food too much to go on a diet.
Where did all that food go?
Asking this question only further shames the person who’s already dealing with self-hate and shame after bingeing. It can also trigger negative feelings leading to other binge and purge cycles. Related to this is any comment on what you or they are eating. Commenting about what people are eating or trying to police their food choices can be extremely damaging and triggering. Someone with an eating disorder is already so preoccupied with food and their food choices, your input could not be more unnecessary. Plus, it can make them defensive and more entrenched in their behaviours. Don’t tell them they’re eating too much or too little or what they should avoid if they’re trying to lose weight. Don’t say things like ‘I’m glad you ate’. People with Eds already feel like they’re being watched and judged for their eating and such comments can just bolster those feelings.
Also, refrain from suggesting what you imagine are healthier diet options. Diets in general and any food restriction plans are a terrible way to nourish the body and do not promote sustainable lifestyle changes. Diets can also be a gateway for eating disorders as people try to restrict their diet more and more. In fact, dieting is one of the biggest predictors of an eating disorder.
You look unhealthy
For someone with an eating disorder, saying they look unhealthy could be taken positively, meaning they are so thin. And thinner is the goal in the mind of a person with an ED. Just avoid any reference to their size, shape or weight.
How to help
It can be difficult to know what to say and that makes sense. Here are some ways you can help:
- Let them know they have your full support and you’re not going anywhere, you’re not going to give up on them. Your patience will be key.
- Ask open-ended questions about how they’re feeling and how you can help and support them
- Educate yourself on eating disorders so that you can better understand what they’re going through and how you can help including how to encourage them to seek professional help
P.S. For reasons that I refuse to go into, don’t say ‘Men don’t want someone who is skin and bones’ and ‘I didn’t know men have eating disorders’.
Health: Common Types Of Eating Disorders And Why It Matters
Parenting: Ways You May Unintentionally Be Giving Your Child An Eating Disorder