This blog is designed to help clarify some of the key ways you can be helpful when you discover that an adult family member, friend or maybe even a colleague has eating or body image issues. I have specified adult since there are some differences when it comes to helping children with eating disorders -though many of these tips would still apply.
In my practice, I frequently hear about some of the hurtful and misguided things people say to those with eating disorders so while the intentions may be good, the comments can also be insensitive and possibly even harmful.
Some people may decide to ignore the problem completely, sometimes out of fear or just because they don’t know how to start the discussion or maybe they think that it will just go away on it’s own. It will not! Do not ignore the problem be proactive & get started today. Here is a list of suggestions of where you can begin:
- Try to learn as much as you can about eating disorders, there are many excellent websites such as www.NationalEatingDisorders.org that offer lots of helpful information.
- Avoid discussions that center around numbers, such as body weight, calories, and amount of food, time and quantity of exercise.
- Do not comment on appearance, “you look great today,” may be interepreted as you have gained (lost) weight. If you want to pay someone a complement, take the focus off physical appearance and on the essence of who they are on the inside or what wonderful things they have accomplished in their life.
- Tell someone you know and trust and figure out how you can both best help the person with the eating disorder. Do not gossip, the intention is not to spread rumors it’s to recruit support for the person you care about.
- Do not give ultimatum (such as, if you don’t get treatment I will have to end our friendship, this is not caring it is manipulation). Do not make promises that you may not be able to keep, such as agreeing never to tell anyone, a time may come when the eating disorder becomes a life or death situation.
- Model “normal eating”; this is not necessarily always “healthy eating.” if you are also frequently concerned about what and how much you eat you may perpetuate the problem. Instead, eat a variety of foods and do not subscribe to notions or good and bad foods.
- Do not try to take charge or make threats, you cannot force someone to get treatment and becoming the food police will not help the situation. Be gentle, encouraging and supportive.
- If you eat a meal with someone suffering from an eating disorder, take the pressure off; this means, don’t talk about or make comments about their food, how much they eat or don’t eat, or how they eat. Instead, take the focus off eating and discuss something completely unrelated, preferable something uplifting & positive. Meal times are incredible stressful for people with eating disorders.
- Challenge false beliefs: such as the myth that weight loss relates to happiness, or that being overweight is a sign of laziness.
- Don’t buy into the media obsession with diet, beauty and thinness, change the channel, keep those fashion, diet and celebrity magazines out of your home or place or work, better yet be an advocate, write a letter to the editor and voice your concerns to those that have the media power.
Keep in mind eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disease in America.
Take a look at these statistics from the National Eating Disorders Association as illustrated on the CNN website below: