What Not To Say To Someone Who Has An Eating Disorder

Trigger warning: The following article discusses disordered eating that some may find alarming.

The American Psychiatric Association defines an eating disorder as "behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions." Some health professionals believe that eating disorders can be caused by what people see in the media: Hollywood and social media perpetuates the idea that only one type of body is attractive and desirable, encouraging people to participate in toxic diet culture, according to the Center For Discovery. Underlying factors like body dysmorphia, anxiety, depression, and genetics may also play a factor in the development of an eating disorder.

A loved one may be suffering with an eating disorder, and you may not be aware of it. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), "9% of the U.S. population, or 28.8 million Americans, will have an eating disorder in their lifetime." Even with so many impacted, eating disorders have been stigmatized in society, often the butt of jokes in movies and TV shows or glorified as a quick way of losing weight. While these stigmas could not be further from the truth, it has caused many people who endure these disorders to suffer in silence. Understanding the signs of an eating disorder can help you identify when your loved one is struggling, and knowing what to say to them can possibly save their life.

How to identify signs of an eating disorder

Contrary to popular belief, there are actually different types of eating disorders and symptoms that impact people of all shapes and sizes. The Mayo Clinic defines each disorder and their characteristics: anorexia is categorized by extreme weight loss, food restriction, and a fear of gaining weight. Bulimia is when a person binges food and then purges it by throwing up immediately, often experiencing guilt and shame. Binge-eating is when a person eats a large amount of food in a short amount of time past the feeling of being full, and feels out of control when it comes to food. All three are life-threatening disorders if not treated properly.

Eating disorders can be prevented if the symptoms can be recognized and treated early on. The National Eating Disorders Association identified signs of a possible eating disorder — all include some version of extremism surrounding food, exercise, body image, and mood swings. A commonly understood sign of eating disorders is purging immediately after meals, but other signs can be just as telling. Extreme dieting is a big indicator, where a person highly restricts their food intake to an unhealthy amount. Extremely frequent exercise and high anxiety when one is unable to exercise is another sign. People who express constant distaste for their body can be at risk for an eating disorder, especially when it is accompanied with intense meal preparation and restricting/binging their meals. These signs can indicate that your loved one needs help.

Make space for your loved one to express their feelings without judgment

Once you have identified that your loved one is experiencing an eating disorder, it can be difficult to find the words to communicate your support. While you may have never experienced an eating disorder yourself, it's important to express your understanding as best you can without judgment. NourishRX, a team of dietitians and specialists, advises against making any comments about the person's appearance. You may think that saying, "You aren't fat/You're so healthy-looking/you're too skinny!" is a compliment, but when someone is struggling with their relationship with food, you could be further fueling their insecurity. Instead, try to focus on their internal feelings and experiences rather than their outer appearance (via Insider).

Avoid asking questions about their eating habits, too, regardless of how much or how little someone is consuming. Phrases like, "Just stop/Eat normally/Why can't you diet normally?" can make someone with an eating disorder feel worse. If your loved one has sought treatment, encourage them through the process. The Center for Discovery provides one of the best things to say to someone suffering with an eating disorder: "You are worth more than your eating disorder."

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741)