14 Things Your Loved One With an Eating Disorder Wants You To Know (but is afraid to tell you)

Eating disorders are prevalent, complicated, and often stigmatized. People struggling with them typically have difficulty speaking up and expressing their needs directly.

I have been fortunate enough to have some very well intentioned and supportive friends and family in my life. Sadly, there are many times they have made comments or asked questions that were harmful for my recovery.

By writing out what I wish I had shared, I hope is this article will help both those on the journey of recovery and those who are supporting their loved ones in recovery.

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1.Understand that you don’t truly understand

Most people have felt uncomfortable in their own skin living in a society that idealizes thinness. But struggling with an eating disorder does not mean I simply, “feel fat”, and want to go on a diet.  It means that the more I focus on my fat, the less I can focus on anything else.

No matter how much weight I lose, it is never enough. And no matter what I look like, I am disgusted by my reflection. It means I do not see myself the way anyone else sees me. I go to extreme measures and lengths to try to change my body.

Eating disorders cause you to put weight loss ahead of friends, my family, and health.  Worst of all, even as I realize I am doing it, I feel like I can not stop it.

It is overwhelming, all consuming, lonely, and terrifying.

2. Eating disorders are about so much more than food and weight

People with eating disorders come in every shape and size. A person’s weight or what they do with food is a symptom of much larger issues going on inside of the person.

Assuming eating disorders are simply about the food and weight is like assuming lung cancer is only about coughing, and can be simply treated by giving cough drops or honey.

3. You have to face it everyday

Unlike an addict who abstains from their substance of choice, a person with an eating disorder must face eating food 3-5 times a day… Every. Single. Day. 

Each day can be filled with multiple challenges other people find typical.  Having a stomach bug, dental work, or even a very heavily scheduled day are opportunities for recovery to be derailed and the eating disorder to creep in.

And just like an addict, I often experience a sort of psychological “high” from using symptoms.  While I logically know they are not good for me, I have strong urges that are difficult to resist.

4. Just because I think I am fat, does not mean I think YOU are fat

While eating disorders do thrive off of comparing ourselves to those around us, it is such an insidious and tricky phenomena.  The deeper someone falls into an eating disorder, often the more distorted their view of themselves and others becomes.

Simply put, I do not see myself the way you see me, and it can genuinely make me feel insane. Not only is it impossible for me to see myself clearly, I also hold myself to an impossibly higher set of standards than I hold anyone else to. It doesn’t make sense. But neither do eating disorders.

5. Just because I have gained weight, it does not mean I am “all better”

Eating disorders are about so much more than food, eating, and weight.

You cannot tell if someone is healthy or recovered based on their size or weight.

Many people who struggle with eating disorders vacillate between various symptoms which may or may not affect their weight.  While all of recovery is hard (including asking for help, introducing new foods, and possibly weight gain), I believe the most difficult part is after the weight has been restored.

It can be a constant battle to choose recovery every single moment of the day, and once weight is restored often support has also lessened.  So rather than assuming you know how your loved one is doing based on their appearance, if you honestly want to know, please ask them directly.

6. I want to answer honestly when you ask how I’m doing, but it’s hard

I am ashamed of my struggles and often frustrated by my difficulties. I’m am afraid that this eating disorder defines who I am as a person and that it always will.

It is a process and I do believe in full recovery, but I am not there yet. I am still finding my way.

7. Many normal activities you find easy or natural are hard for me. Really hard.

Such as eating at restaurants. Or grocery shopping. Or eating at a party or social gathering.  I may appear calm on the outside, but if I am in recovery from an eating disorder, I am likely very good at covering up my feelings.

8. Please don’t comment on my food. Ever.

Especially when I am eating or trying to choke it down. Saying how big my serving is or how surprised you are when I eat a lot of it. This only feeds my sick eating disorder voice. 

Not only does it draw attention to the food which is likely causing me anxiety,  but it also can be extremely triggering for me.

I do not feel comfortable with you commenting on my food, what I am eating, how much, or when. Period.

9. Please don’t comment on my body shape or size

If you tell me I have lost weight, my eating disorder is fed and I immediately want to lose more weight.  Or panic sets in as I worry I have slipped with out realizing it.

If you tell me that I look healthy, or “much better”. Your well intentioned comment is quickly changed in my disordered head to mean “you are fat,” or “you are fine now.”  Any comment on weight is just not helpful.

And again, eating disorders are about more than food and weight.  This simply can not be said enough times.

10. Please don’t tell me about your diet. EVER.

It is not only inconsiderate and triggering, but it is also unhealthy.  At the root of eating disorders is the false belief that losing weight will improve health and happiness. And someone with an eating disorder is constantly comparing themselves to others believing they simply do not measure up.

If you are truly interested in your loved one becoming healthy, educate yourself about health.  Science simply does NOT support the use of diets to lose weight OR improve health.

If you don’t believe me, research it.  There are many incredible resources and reading Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon is a great place to start.

11. I often live in fear that I will slide down the slippery slope back into my eating disorder

It is a paradox, because I can vacillate between complete and utter denial- believing I am not thin or sick enough to even have an eating disorder- to feeling like one misstep and all of my hard work for recovery will be lost as I sink into a place where the eating disorder is larger than I am.

In this place, it truly feels like I am not capable of finding my way out.

12. As much as you would like to fix this for me, you can’t

As much as I would like you to fix this for me, you can not.

If I am the one struggling with an eating disorder, it is up to me to choose recovery and to continue to choose recovery.

You can offer support and be there for me along the journey, but I must be the one to take the steps forward.

13. Recovery, just like life, is not perfect

I have difficulty remembering this. I will undoubtably fall down and take some steps backwards.  But please continue to believe in me and help me to see my steps forward, especially when I am unable to see them myself.

14. We need you, even when we don’t know how to ask for your support.

Eating disorders thrive on isolation, withdrawing, and hiding our emotions and thoughts. Through recovery, we are able to reconnect or create new relationships and connection is really what we all crave and thrive off of.

So thank you for your love, for your support, and for your patience.

Image: @matusfi

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  • So… I’d like to ask a question. You’ve left a long list of things that people should NOT do or say and in #13 one indication that help is appreciated but no clues as to what is actually helpful. If, as you stated, reminding you of progress you have made is supposed to be helpful, how does one do that without mentioning weight or food since that’s what we’re dealing with? How do you talk truthfully about an issue without talking about the things that are directly related to it? I am seeking for understanding, I am not in anyway trying to stir up strife here. I just know what it’s like to walk around on eggshells around someone for fear of causing them triggers, but I don’t know what actions on my part are actually helpful. It seems like saying nothing and doing nothing are what you are asking us to do… Stay out, shut up and don’t talk about it. I don’t really see that as helpful in the long run and it can be very frustrating for those of us that love you…

  • Thank you for your comment Linette. First of all, I am sorry to hear that you have a loved one who is struggling- they are fortunate to have you as a support. I certainly did not intend to send the message that loved ones should stay out, shut up, and don’t talk about it, and I apologize if that is how it seems. Just like someone who has not struggled with an eating disorder can not truly understand what it is like, I can not understand what it is like to love someone who is struggling and not to be able to fix things for them. Eating disorders are so complicated and complex, unfortunately it is a lot easier to write about what is not helpful. I do not know your loved one or your own situation, the best advice I can give is to seek out support and education for yourself. Look for a support group for loved ones of people with eating disorders, participate in family therapy if appropriate, read about Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating, and ask questions to the professionals you are working with. As far as what would specifically help your loved one – talk to them and ask them what helps, what do they need, how do they FEEL, how are they doing? And LISTEN to them. Therapy can be so helpful with this. A lot of my don’t are based on the myth that eating disorders are only about food and weight, and they are about much bigger, deeper issues that unfortunately can not be solved with a list of 14 things. Definitely don’t ignore what is going on, but also realize you can be there to provide support and love but you can not fix this for them. Best wishes for you and your loved one.

  • So spot on! Thank you for writing this piece, Lisette. It is so helpful for people who are supporting someone in recovery to know these things.

  • Quite possibly the most brilliant piece I have ever read on understanding the mindset of someone afflicted with anorexia nervosa. The question Linette brought up in the comments was equally enlightening…as was your response. I will be forwarding this to my recovery support group and my entire family. Just…BRAVO!

  • Thank you so much I am in a year relationship with my girlfriend and knowing these 15 thing will help me help her so much more I love her with All my heart!!!!! THANK YOU!!!

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