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What To Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder

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It can be incredibly difficult to know what to say to someone with an eating disorder.

If you have a loved one struggling to eat, you might encounter the very difficult task of: 

Eating disorders are extraordinarily complex, and comments that may seem like compliments or something that is encouraging can quickly trigger symptoms associated with the illness. 

The person struggling with an eating disorder likely comes with a very loud eating disorder voice which can easily twist even well-intended comments into insults.

Let’s explore what to say to someone with an eating disorder, what not to say to someone with an eating disorder, and the best ways to support your loved one during this very difficult time. 

What To Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder

It’s important to someone that struggles with eating to know: 

  • You’re there to sit with them and support them in their journey, even though you can’t understand everything they’re experiencing
  • You won’t become angry or upset if they struggle with recovery or meeting their meal plan
  • You’re open to sharing in their feelings with them, and also sharing your own feelings where its appropriate. 

Three “Because Statements” When Supporting Someone With An ED

One tool is using three “because” statements following an intense emotion that you are observing from a person you love who is struggling to eat

The three-because statement communication method can serve as a key way to validate someone with an eating disorder and help them to feel heard. 

An example of the three because statements would be: 

  • I know that it’s incredibly scary for your right now to think about finishing this meal because you feel like you might get fat.  Because you feel like if you get fat people will see that you’ve failed. Because you feel like if you fail at staying a certain size no one will love you.

What To Say At Meal Time: 

When there is an eating disorder at the table, the person is probably experiencing extreme grief, fear, shame, and even anger. 

It can be challenging to know what to say when emotions are high at the dinner table. 

Here are some examples of what to say to someone struggling with eating at meal time:

  • I know that this is incredibly difficult for you. Let’s take this first bite together. 
  • I love you. I trust you, and I believe in you. 
  • Whatever you’re feeling right now is valid. I’m here to support you and listen to your fears. 

A person struggling to eat should be following an eating disorder recovery meal plan specifically designed to meet their needs by an eating disorder dietitian.

What Not To Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder

What Not To Say When You Suspect An Eating Disorder

When you first suspect an eating disorder, it’s helpful to approach the situation without talking about: 

  • Weight
  • Food

Instead, try talking about behaviors, emotions, and feelings that you have observed not related to food and body weight.  

A person struggling to eat will likely to get defensive if we open the conversation with weight and food comments and could and they may shut down the opportunity for us to express our concerns completely. 

Use “I” Versus “You” Statement

When talking to someone with an eating disorder, it can be helpful to avoid “you” statements. This can make the person feel like their eating disorder is their fault, and that they are personally responsible for the pain they are experiencing. 

For example try to avoid statements such as: 

  • You need help
  • You never finish your meals
  • You’re losing a lot of weight 
  • Why can’t you just eat it? 

Changing the language to promote a conversation that is more observational.  To do this, it may be helpful to change “you” statements to “I” statements. 

I statements let the person know you’re taking responsibility for your own feelings, and you are not blaming them for their eating disorder. 

Some examples of I statements include: 

  • I’m noticing you have lower energy than usual, and your moods are shifting quickly. Is everything okay? 
  • I’m noticing you disappear after mealtimes and I’ve found laxatives in your room.  I want to help support you and get you set up with people that can work through this with you.
  • I’m very concerned about you. I’m noticing you’re not interested in spending time with your friends or doing activities you used to love. 

Common Body Phrases To Avoid With Someone Struggling With Their Body And Food

My biggest piece of advice when it comes to commenting on the body of someone with an eating disorder is not to comment on ANYONES body unless it’s on fire. 

Things to avoid discussing when talking to someone with an eating disorder 

  • Comments about how they have lost or gained weight
  • Praise the person with an eating disorder for weight loss or weight gain 
  • Phrases like “you look healthy” or “you’re looking so good!”
  • Phrases like “you’re not too thin/lean”
  • Comments like “you don’t look like you have an eating disorder”
  • Commenting on the body weight shape or size of ANYONE in front of the person with an eating disorder 
  • Praising anyone for weight loss
  • Asking someone if they’ve been working out 
  • Promising someone won’t gain weight if they eat more 

Promising someone they will not gain weight during recovery from an eating disorder is inherantly fatphobic and should be avoided.  

This is true even if the person is living in a larger body.  

Common Food Phrases To Avoid With Someone With An Eating Disorder 

Conversations about food are likely to be a trigger to someone who struggles to eat. 

Phrases not to say about food for someone struggling to eat include: 

  • Wow. I really wish I had your level of control. 
  • Are you going to eat all of that?
  • I wish I could eat that and look like you
  • Just cut out (insert food)
  • I don’t eat (insert food here)
  • I’m on (insert diet here) diet 
  • That is so gross! 
  • That food is healthy/unhealthy
  • That food is good/bad
  • You should only have (insert food) in moderation 
  • Great job finishing all of your meal! 
  • That’s not part of your meal plan 

It’s important to consider that most people with an eating disorder will not experience normal hunger and fullness cues.  

What To Say To Someone After A Binge

When someone is experiencing a binge, or binge eating disorder it’s very important we validate the difficulty of the experience and offer support in a non-judgemental way.  

Sometimes it can be helpful to say emotions a person might be experiencing out loud to show compassion and validation. 

For example, we might say to someone who has just binged: 

  • I want to understand how this is affecting you 
  • What are some of the things you are feeling right now? 
  • I understand that you are angry and frustrated because you didn’t get that promotion at work because you were the most qualified candidate and because you feel like your work was not valued. 

What we do NOT want to do is shame the person for binging or try to fix the problems.  

Examples of what you shouldn’t say to someone after a binge include: 

  • You could stop if you just had practiced willpower
  • You don’t need any more food
  • Why don’t you try this diet?
  • I used to feel out of control too until I stopped eating (sugar, gluten, insert food here)
  • Have you tried intermittent fasting? 
  • You don’t need that
  • Just don’t eat when you’re not hungry

Binge eating is ultimately a result of food restriction, which leads to a binge restrict cycle.  

Thus shaming a binge or encouraging future restrictions will actually probably increase binge behavior. 

How Do You Help Someone Who Has Problems With Eating? 

Someone with an eating disorder should be working with a qualified treatment team which includes a doctor, therapist, and dietitian. 

It’s very important that you do not ignore restrictive behavior if you see them. 

Talk with your loved one about the eating behaviors you are concerned about: 

  • In a calm environment
  • When other life circumstances are not taking priority if possible (job, school, family conflicts or deaths)
  • With resources in mind to support the person with an eating disorder (outpatient therapy, treatment center, etc). 

These eating disorder recovery books can be an excellent resource to support you and your loved one in the journey of recovery. 

Remember, eating disorder recovery is a long, nonlinear process. The sooner a person seeks out recovery the less likely they are to have long-term complications of eating disorders. 

Starting the conversation about eating disorders sooner rather than later could save someone’s life.

Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!