What is appropriate to say to someone you care about, who is struggling with an eating disorder? Desperately not wanting to offend, but equally not wanting to turn a blind eye.
Sometimes supporting someone with eating problems can be like the elephant in the room and trying to find the right thing to say can seem like walking through a minefield – never knowing when you might trigger an explosion.
It may seem obvious what you shouldn’t say, but there are a few less apparent remarks, which could be damaging or triggering to someone recovering from an eating disorder. From my experience, this is what not to say:
It looks like you’ve gained weight.
It may come from a good place and innocent intentions, but it is never helpful to comment on someone’s appearance or weight. People with eating disorders may equate weight gain and changes in their body with their self-worth. Any mention of a change in weight could translate into looking “fat” and lead to feelings of self-loathing that extend beyond weight issues.
It is also important to remember that weight gain does not imply that someone is recovered or even doing “well"; making a complete recovery from an eating disorder can take time and even if someone looks “better” physically, they may still battle mentally and emotionally. Instead, why not compliment someone’s choice of clothing?
You’re looking much better.
Any comment that draws attention to weight - even weight loss - is dangerous ground. Praising weight loss or certain body types may send mixed messages and could potentially reinforce someone’s eating disorder. So, think twice about congratulating and praising other people's body types or weight loss. Our worth should not be defined by our size.
Are you sure you have an eating disorder? You don’t look like you have one.
It is important to remember that eating disorders come in all different forms and are not defined by weight or size. Telling someone that they are not thin or sick enough is not going to help them and may delay them reaching out for help.
It's okay, I sometimes do that…
Telling a vulnerable person that you sometimes engage in unhealthy behaviour like over-exercising or skipping breakfast is incredibly unhelpful, eating disorders are not illnesses you can switch on and off, they are severe and enduring. Steer clear of saying anything that will normalise unhealthy behaviours or thinking patterns.
Why don’t you just eat (a suggested food)?
Offering simplistic solutions can undermine and belittle someone’s battle. Eating disorders are fundamentally not about food.
You eat a lot/You eat too fast/slow/That food looks weird.
People recovering from eating disorders may have to adhere to prescribed meal plans. They may also eat at certain times or in a particular manner. They can often feel self-conscious about their food choices and bringing attention to their eating choices or habits could make them feel insecure or embarrassed.
I want to lose weight, how do you do it?
Eating disorders are not diets, they are serious life-controlling illnesses. It would not be sensitive to ask someone with an eating disorder for weight loss tips.
Just eat more.
If it was that straightforward and easy, most people with eating disorders would have recovered. As a friend or family member it is okay to feel frustrated or upset, but instead of just telling them to “snap out of it” you should spend time listening to them and understanding their feelings.
Relationships are incredibly important when recovering from any mental health issue. So, I’ve covered what not to say, but what should you say?
Simply keep being YOU. Friendships and family can mean everything when going through an eating disorder. You might not always get it right, but remember to always be sensitive and compassionate and continually remind them that recovery is always possible.
Where to get help
If you think you are affected by an eating disorder, talk to someone you trust. It’s often hard to accept that you might have an eating problem but young people who have suffered from one always say that beginning to talk is the start of their road to recovery.
Understanding that you are not alone is really important and there are a lot of groups around the UK where you can go to talk with young people who have shared the same experience as you. This can really help you begin your recovery.
You can find more information on eating disorders, and where to get help in our guide to eating problems.