Things You Should Never Say to Someone Living with An Eating Disorder

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Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2024 takes place Monday, February 26 – Sunday, March 3, 2024.

Affecting millions of people around the world, eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that involve persistent and distressing patterns of eating behavior that interfere with physical, social and mental wellbeing.

As part of Eating Disorders Awareness Week—an annual campaign to educate the public and engage in efforts to provide hope and to engage support for individuals and families affected by eating disorders—we connected with Ann Donnelly, Registered Nurse and Vice President of Care Management for Priority Health.

It should be noted that eating disorders affect many individuals and families, with Donnelly sharing that about 9% (nearly 29 million Americans) will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.

"This is a difficult reality, and this week is a time to educate the public about the realities of eating disorders and to provide hope, support, and visibility to individuals and families who are affected," Donnelly said, adding that the chance for recovery increases the earlier an eating disorder is detected, so it's important to be aware of some of the warning signs. Some common symptoms, according to Donnelly, include:

  • Behaviors and attitudes that indicate that weight loss, dieting and control of food are becoming primary concerns.
  • Noticeable fluctuations in weight, both up and down.
  • Withdrawal from usual friends and activities.
  • Food rituals.
  • Extreme concern with body size and shape.

Donnelly shared however, the above isn't intended as an end-all-be-all checklist, as warning signs vary across eating disorders and don't always fit into neat categories.

"Family and friends can play an important role in identifying worrying symptoms for someone who may be suffering and encouraging them to seek help," Donnelly said. "A few things you can do include: Learning as much as you can about eating disorders; rehearsing what you want to say; setting a private time and place to talk; and using 'I' statements. Focus on behaviors that you've personally observed, such as, 'I have noticed that you aren't eating dinner with us anymore,' or 'I am worried about how frequently you are going to the gym.'"

Of course, when someone you care about has an eating disorder, the natural inclination is to support and help them. Donnelly notes that it's important to know how to do that, being mindful of what to say and what not to.

"Even the most well-intended person can still say the wrong thing," she said.

Donnelly shared the following phrases, which you should avoid saying to someone who has an eating disorder:

DON'T SAY: "I think you look fine."
"Comments about a person's body or appearance can be triggering and cause great distress for individuals suffering from an eating disorder," Donnelly explained.

INSTEAD, SAY: "This must be so hard. I'm here for you."
"You are not expected to have all the answers for a loved one who has an eating disorder," Donnelly said. "Sometimes a person just needs to be acknowledged and feel understood."

DON'T SAY: "You just need to eat less," or "You just need to eat more."
"This statement can be interpreted as blaming and can be triggering for a person who is struggling," Donnelly explained. "Eating less or more is not something someone with an eating disorder can simply do."

INSTEAD, SAY: "I'm sorry you're hurting."
"Again, people want to be heard and want their feelings validated," Donnelly said.

DON'T SAY: "You should try _______ [diet or trend]."
"Remove 'diet talk' from your vocabulary entirely," Donnelly advised. "Suggesting someone tries a diet will only encourage their disordered eating."

INSTEAD, SAY: "I love you."
"Showing empathy goes a long way and there are many ways of expressing your love, starting with this basic phrase," Donnelly said.

DON'T SAY: "Do I look fat?" or "I need to lose weight."
"Try to refrain from talking about your body and others' bodies," Donnelly suggested. "Negative self-talk can also be triggering, and it is likely individuals with an eating disorder are hyper aware of their bodies and how others feel and talk about their bodies."

INSTEAD, SAY: "How can I best support you?"
"Communicating with your loved one and letting them know you are there for them is powerful and strongly encouraged," Donnelly said. "Explain that you want to support them in whatever way they need."

Myths and misconceptions surrounding eating disorders abound, so it's vital to understand the truth behind them. According to Donnelly, one common misconception is that eating disorders are a choice or a lifestyle, which is untrue.

"Eating disorders are complex disorders that are influenced by genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors, she said. "People with eating disorders do not choose to have them, and they cannot simply snap out of them."

Another common myth Donnelly often hears is that eating disorders only affect women.

"Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, body size, shape or socioeconomic status," she explained. "Eating disorders are not a vanity issue or a phase. They are serious and potentially life-threatening conditions that require professional treatment."

People also often think eating disorders are caused by media, culture or family pressure. However, Donnelly says eating disorders are not caused by any single factor.

"Media, culture, and family can influence one's body image, self-esteem and eating behavior, but they are not the sole or direct causes of eating disorders," she said. "Eating disorders are multifactorial and involve a combination of genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors.

"Challenging these misconceptions can help reduce the stigma and discrimination that people with eating disorders face. Debunking these myths can also help increase awareness and understanding of the complexity of eating disorders and can encourage people to seek help and support."

Visit NEDA to learn more about eating disorders and for helpful resources.

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.


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