friend supporting someone experiencing an eating disorder
  • July 28, 2023

What Can I Say to Someone With an Eating Disorder? | Imbodi Health

Disordered eating recovery can be an overwhelming and challenging time. During this time, you may be thinking about what you […]

Disordered eating recovery can be an overwhelming and challenging time. During this time, you may be thinking about what you can say to someone with an eating disorder.

While each journey is personal and looks different for every individual, having support people can make a world of difference (1). Your support can involve helping the person navigate their challenges, by creating a safe environment that allows them to do so (2). 

If you are caring for someone struggling with an eating disorder, it can be hard to know the right things to say or how to approach them. It is useful to learn about helpful strategies and understand how you can best support them and contribute to their recovery journey (3). 

Before approaching the person, you can prepare by educating yourself. This can help you to develop a better understanding of eating disorders (3). You can visit the butterfly foundationm which has helpful information about eating disorders here.

In this article, we will dive into some of the helpful and unhelpful things to say to someone in recovery. 

 

 

Unhelpful things to say to someone with an eating disorder

When you are engaging in conversation with someone who has an eating disorder, there are certain topics or statements that might be triggering or harmful to them. It is important to steer clear of conversations that focus on weight, diet talk, or appearance (even if it’s ‘positive’).

 

Focusing on weight

Eating disorders can be characterised by behaviours that place emphasis on weight and appearance. Making comments around body weight, shape or size, may reinforce these behaviours. Because of this, it’s best to avoid it all together. 

Instead, shift your attention to their health and wellbeing by drawing concern to their feelings or behaviours (3). 

 

 Diet talk

Conversations that centre around specific diets, restrictive eating habits, such as calorie counting or restricting food groups is considered diet talk. Dieting behaviour, is one of the most common forms of disordered eating (4). Diet talk can be particularly unhelpful for those with an eating disorder. The person may become triggered, feel ashamed or become protective of their eating behaviours, so It is best to steer clear of it (3). 

 

two hands being held in support

 

Talking about appearance, even if it’s positive

While compliments may have good intention behind them, those that emphasise physical appearance can be problematic. This is because it can reinforce the concept that one’s worth is tied to their looks. This may lead to self-criticism and pressure to maintain a particular appearance.  

Overall, it’s best to avoid any appearance-based compliments, whether positive or negative (5, 6). 

 

What to say instead:

Instead, you can make the shift by celebrating qualities beyond their physical appearance. Compliments that contribute to a healthier notion of self-worth, are those that emphasise their inner qualities, strengths, or achievements. Try these: 

  • “I admire your strength and resilience”
  • “You have a great sense of humour” 
  • “Your courage inspires me” 
  • “Your energy is so bright and contagious” 
  • “Your talent for_____ is so impressive” 

 

BOOK IN A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS
 

Negative dialogue 

The way you articulate your messages are important. Try and refrain from using the following (3):   

  • Blaming statements (generally ‘YOU’ statements): “It’s your fault you are experiencing this” or “If you weren’t so___ you wouln’t___”
  •  Labelling statements: “You are being difficult” or “You are being silly” 
  • Judgemental language: “Why can’t you eat normally” or “It’s not that hard to___”
  • Demands for change: “Just stop (Insert behaviour)”, or “Get over it” or “Just start eating normally” 

Remember, while it is great that you’re offering to help, keep in mind that sometimes information or suggestions may be overwhelming for the person (7). 

 

Helpful things you can say instead

Before you meet with the person, it is helpful to think about what you will say, as choosing the right words can be difficult. Remember, being kind, calm, honest, open, and reassuring goes a long way (6). 

 

Firstly, It is important to understand what is useful to the person, by asking them questions like:

  • Would you like some helpful suggestions, or would you prefer me to just listen?

OR

  • Would you prefer me to check in with you regularly or occasionally? (8)

 

These answers will likely help you better understand the particular needs of the person.

 

Listen without judgement

It is important to create a safe environment, by placing emphasis on feelings and behaviours, without judgement. Being non-judgemental is about listening, regardless of your own opinions or criticism, even if you do not agree with what is being said (7). 

You can display active listening, by recognising what they have told you, and reflect this back to them, “I can see that you feel … .is that right? Follow this by thanking them, “I appreciate you sharing that with me” (9). 

How can we express our concerns and observations?

Statements that begin with ‘you’, may serve a judgemental or blaming undertone, so it is best to use “I” statements instead. The use of “I” allows you to express your own concerns and observations. For example, “I am concerned about you because…” rather than “You are concerning me” (7). 

 

woman listening to her friend without judgement

 

 Encouraging professional help

When raising concern, draw attention to their behaviours which indicate an underlying problem,  requiring professional support (7). You can help an individual navigate their options and connect them to helpful resources including:

 

Remember to look after yourself

Caring for someone with an eating disorder can be challenging. Don’t neglect your own wellbeing and be sure to reach out for help. You can visit the Butterfly national helpline, to seek information and support as a carer.

 

 

Summary

Support people play a crucial role for those who are on their Journey to recovery from disordered eating.

Conversations that place emphasis on weight or diet talk, can be triggering and may reinforce eating disorder behaviour, or place pressure on the individual.

Many people don’t realise the harm that appearance-based compliments may cause, even the positive ones. Remember, this can be unhelpful, so it’s best to step away from these types of compliments all together.

It can be difficult to know the right things to say and how to approach the person. Educating yourself before approaching the person can develop your understanding in how you can support them. 

If you are caring for someone struggling with an Eating disorder, there are resources available, to you and the person you are caring for. Reaching out to an Eating disorder dietitian is a helpful tool for treatment and recovery. 

BOOK IN A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS
 

 

Written by: Student dietitian Pania-Rose Henwood
Review by: Accredited Practicing Dietitian Jade Wrigley

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