Worried that someone you care about may have an eating disorder?
It can be incredibly difficult to raise the subject of eating disorders with a friend or loved one. If you notice warning signs of an eating disorder in a friend or family member that concern you about their overall health and mental wellbeing, it’s important to speak up! You may just be the catalyst to help them get the recovery treatment they need to get better.
Although you might be afraid that you’ve misinterpreted the situation, or that you’ll say the wrong thing, or that you may damage your relationship with that person, it’s important that you don’t let this stop you from voicing your concerns.
People struggling with eating disorders are often too afraid, or in denial, or feel like they aren’t deserving enough to ask for help. In many cases, they are struggling internally just as much as you are to find a way to start the conversation and talk about what they are dealing with.
Whatever the case, eating disorders only get worse the longer they go without professional treatment. The physical, mental, and emotional damage eating disorders cause can be severe and even life-threatening.
The sooner you start to help someone you care about by bringing up this difficult topic in conversation, the better their overall chance of recovery and living a life that’s free from their eating disorder.
The tips shared below are here to help walk you through the steps of approaching someone about your concerns so that you feel more comfortable about what to say, what NOT to say, and how to support someone you care about if you suspect they may have an eating disorder.
Know that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to talk to someone about this sensitive topic and that different approaches will work for different people. Trust that you are doing the best you can, and that you are doing the right thing by bringing your concerns forward to the individual in a caring and supportive way.
1. BE PREPARED
Before you approach someone about a suspected eating disorder, spend some time to educate yourself as much as possible about the topic of eating disorders.
Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, and people don’t “choose” to have them. They develop from complex, multifactorial causes, including a genetic vulnerability, psychological factors, socio-cultural influences, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, dieting behaviours, and are more likely to arise during periods of change, life transitions, and high stress. Eating disorders don’t discriminate, and they can show up at any age, in any gender, and at any weight or body size and don’t fit one stereotypical mold.
Here are some websites to help you learn more:
NEDA: National Eating Disorders Association (United States)
National Eating Disorders Collaboration (Australia)
Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders (Australia)
2. CHOOSE A CARING ENVIRONMENT
Set aside a time for a private, respectful conversation to discuss your concerns openly and honestly in a caring and supportive way. Pick a location that feels safe and comfortable for the person, such as at home, and when you won’t get interrupted or have your conversation cut short. Avoid broaching the topic during mealtime or around food, or in situations where either of you feels angry, tired, or emotional. The goal is to have a calm and quiet time and place to meet.
3. USE THE RIGHT LANGUAGE
It can be tough to know what to say, or what triggering things you should avoid saying when you’re working up the courage to talk to your friend or loved one. Remember that it’s better to speak up than to stay silent if you have concerns, even if you’re not quite sure how to go about things.
Below are some helpful tips when talking to someone you suspect may have an eating disorder.
What To Say
- Try to use “I statements” such as, “I care about you” or “I’m worried about you” or “It makes me afraid to hear you vomiting.”
- Communicate your concerns in a caring way. Share your memories of specific times when you felt concerned about your friend’s eating or exercise behaviours. Explain that you think these things may indicate that there could be a problem that needs professional attention.
- Make the person feel comfortable and let them know it is safe to talk to you.
- Encourage them to express how they feel; remember, it is equally important to understand how they feel, rather than just state how YOU feel.
- Give the person time to talk about their feelings, don’t rush them or cut them off.
- Listen respectfully to what your loved one has to say, and let them know that you don’t judge or criticize them.
- Encourage them to seek help and explore these concerns with a therapist, doctor, Registered Dietitian, or other health professional who is knowledgeable about eating disorders. Explain that you will be there with them each step of the way to offer support. If you feel comfortable doing so, offer to help make an appointment or accompany your friend or loved one on their first visit. (It may be helpful to do some background research in advance on healthcare professionals who specialize in treating eating disorders in your local area to have this information ready to share if they are open to seeking treatment.)
Here are some things to try to avoid as they can contribute to conflict and hinder an open, honest, loving, and supportive conversation.
What Not To Say
- Avoid putting the focus on food (remember, food is often just a symptom of a bigger problem); instead, try talking about how the person is feeling instead.
- Do not blame the person or imply they are doing something wrong; e.g. “You are making me worried.” Instead try, “I am worried about you.”
- Do not take on the role of a therapist. You do not need to have all of the answers; it is most important to listen and create a safe space for the person to speak.
- Avoid dominating the conversation, and try to listen more than you talk.
- Avoid manipulative statements; e.g. “Think about what you are doing to me.” Or “If you loved me, you would stop this.”
- Do not use threatening statements; e.g. “If you don’t eat right now I will punish you.” This can be extremely harmful to the person’s emotions and eating disorder behaviours and can exacerbate the problem significantly.
4. LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGMENT
Eating disorders are complex and deeply personal, private matters. Show that you care by asking about the person’s feelings and concerns, and then truly listen to their answers.
Don’t interrupt, argue with, try to provide advice, or criticize them.
Simply let your friend or family member know that you respect them, care about them, and that you value their thoughts, opinions, and feelings. Even if you can’t relate or understand what they are going through, it’s important to validate your loved one’s feelings and let them know that you’re there to be supportive, without judgment.
Respect their privacy, and do not gossip or share the details of your conversation with anyone else without their permission.
After talking with your friend or loved one, if you are still concerned about their health and safety, find a trusted medical professional in your local area you can talk to. Express your continued support, and remind the person that you care and want them to be healthy and happy.
This is a challenging time, and it requires a lot of courage for both people to be open and honest enough to talk about the subject of eating disorders.
If you’re looking for nutrition counselling support and out-patient treatment for the recovery from an eating disorder, we specialize in 1-on-1 nutrition counselling for adults (18+) both in-person here in London, Ontario, Canada, and via video counselling for those who live far away in the following areas:
- Binge eating disorder
- Food addiction
- EDNOS: Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified
- Exercise Addiction
- Re-establishing a positive relationship with food, exercise, and body image
- Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders in competitive athletes
To get started with us, click here to book an appointment.