Statements that can be challenging to hear and what would be more appropriate to say if your loved one has an eating disorder
1. Why can’t I ask things like: “You look so healthy” or “You look so much better now” People with eating disorders can be extremely self conscious of their bodies and can be hyper aware of people noticing that they may look different when they come home from treatment. What to say instead: If you want to offer a compliment to how someone is looking, try, “You look so happy.” “Your smile is so bright.” “You seem at peace.” Even “Your hair is on point today.”
2. “Are you all better now?” or “So are you cured?” Why not? Completing inpatient or residential treatment is only step 1 out of like a hundred in eating disorder recovery. Just because they come home looking better, it doesn’t mean they are ok. They may still be fighting the thoughts in their mind 24/7 and working very hard to maintain the progress they have made and continuing to make more. An eating disorder is an all consuming battle in your mind and is a mental illness and recovery takes more effort than you can ever imagine. Inpatient or residential treatment is usually is not a cure. It's just a little jumpstart for the hard work to come. Don’t judge how someone is doing based on their weight. What to say instead: “I know this transition home is difficult for you and I’m here for you.” “I may not always understand, but I’m here to talk whenever you need me.” “What can I do to help?”
3. “That’s a huge meal!” “You’re eating a lot today.” “Wow your meal plan has so much food on it.” Why not? Guaranteed, that large amount of food that they need to maintain recovery is giving them anxiety, so don’t comment on it. Increasing the amount of food in someone with an eating disorder often causes them to become hyper metabolic and their meal plan is usually made for them to be able to maintain or finish weight restoration so it may include more food than other people are eating, snacks that are not optional, and almost definitely more food than you’re used to seeing them eat. They may also experience extreme hunger; their body's way of trying to make up for months or years of missed food. What to say instead: Don’t. Don’t comment on food, amounts of food, or their meal plan. If it becomes a concern again that the amounts are too little then an “I’m concerned about you” not at a meal or snack time can be appropriate.
4. Similarly, “I’m not eating/you shouldn’t eat ______ food.” Or any kind of reference to a food as “unhealthy” or morally inferior. Why not? People with eating disorders often have what are referred to as “fear foods.” They are working very hard to conquer those and neutralize all foods since there are no good or bad foods. Don’t undo their progress with comments like this about their food or yours. What to say instead: Again, don’t comment on their food. If you’re struggling with thinking about your food this way, educate yourself on “all foods fit” and intuitive eating.
5. “How much weight did they make you gain at treatment?” “How much do you weigh now?” or “You look so much better now that you’ve gained weight.” Whatever weight or body comment you think you want to say even if you think it’s a compliment. Why not? They are probably having a very hard time with their new body and new weight. They may be seeing it inaccurately and bigger than you’re seeing it and potentially one of their biggest fears of returning from treatment is people noticing and judging their new body. What to say instead: Don’t EVER comment on weight or body. Refer to question 1 if you must.
6.“If you’re self conscious about your new body, we could work out so that you gain more muscle.” Why not? Lots of problems. No body comments. They probably have exercise restrictions. Weight restoration is the bare minimum of physical healing and the body needs a lot more time than you think to heal the effects of malnutrition before it can handle exercise. Exercise also could have been an unhealthy behavior for them during their eating disorder and could cause relapse. What to say instead: “Want to hang out? What would you like to do?” “I want to spend time with you.”
Bonus tip: Educate yourself. Look for books, articles, podcasts, research, anything to learn about eating disorders and recommendations for family and friends. The effort shows you care. Ask how you can help.
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