Knowing how to support a loved one with an eating disorder can be tricky business. After all, eating food is an essential part of daily life to which most people happily look forward, but in a world where we build our private celebrations and public festivals around food, it can be challenging to navigate supporting loved ones who suffer from such a complicated relationship with food. So when it comes to having a loved one with an eating disorder what do we do? How do we support them?
1. Remember that eating disorders are not really about food. The relationship that individuals with EDs have with food is a complex web of anxious thoughts, distressing emotions, and compulsive behaviors. As a result, oversimplifying “solutions” by telling those suffering with eating disorders to “just eat!” or saying “it’s just food” often only serves to make the individual feel increasingly invalidated, frustrated, and powerless.
2. Ask how your loved one what is helpful to them. Coping mechanisms for dealing with the thoughts and emotions of eating disorders are different for every individual. What is helpful for you when you are stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious may not be helpful for your loved one. For instance, some individuals need an activity like playing a game to get out of their head after a meal, while others may need to talk or journal in order to process their thoughts and feelings.
3. Engage in light conversation at the table. Many individuals with eating disorders get stuck in anxious thoughts during mealtimes, so it can be helpful when others engage them in stimulating conversations or games during meals to distract them from the turmoil of their inner world while they eat. It is important to not discuss issues that may be triggering or stressful; grades, strained relationships, finances, and other tough topics may add anxiety and distress to what your loved one already experiences during meal times. Keep table conversations positive and encouraging.
4. Avoid food talk. Whether it be positive or negative, commenting on how food looks, smells, or feels, discussing whether it is “healthy” or “unhealthy,” talking about how many calories or carbohydrates are in it, and other similar conversations are immensely unhelpful for individuals with eating disorders. These types of commentary perpetuate negative perceptions of food that are already present by reinforcing rigid thinking around food.
5. Avoid commenting and giving compliments based on appearance, especially size and weight. Even when well-meaning, this is highly triggering to individuals with eating disorders. A comment about how thin an individual looks often serves as an encouragement for the individual to continue in restricting patterns. Likewise, comments about an individual coming out of treatment “looking healthy again” often translates in their minds to having gained weight and can trigger a re-emergence of unhealthy eating disorder behaviors. Instead, try giving encouragement and affirmations based on character or gifting such as, “Your compassion always makes me feel so cared for,” or “That painting is beautiful; You’re really talented.”