Eating disorders are a complex set of mental illnesses that can impact someone’s mood, thought processes, and physical health. Food restriction, binging, purging, and over-exercising are just a few of the signs that your loved one may have a problem. However, eating disorders are much more than the struggle you witness at the dinner table.

Most people with eating disorders are constantly fighting an internal battle over their food, their body, and their everyday choices. They can feel immense guilt and shame when they disregard disordered eating urges, but simultaneously feel miserable engaging in these patterns. While this internal dialogue is rarely obvious to others, it is ever-present. This makes it incredibly difficult to find the right words to show that you care. While it’s never your job to fix or save your loved one, knowing what words and phrases are most helpful will communicate your support and concern.

1. DON’T say, “You’re so skinny – you look awful!”

This can be a natural response when our loved one begins experiencing some of the more severe physical effects of disordered eating. However, instead of serving as a motivator for change, comments like this serve to bring up shame and discomfort. These comments can also backfire and be interpreted as ‘positive’ feedback for the eating disorder.

DO say, “I’m getting concerned about you – you seem to be struggling.”

Take the focus off of appearances and point out more specific concerns about your loved one’s mood, health, or well-being. Try to ask open-ended questions and encourage them to share, instead of making statements that can be interpreted as personal attacks.

2. DON’T say, “Just eat/don’t binge/don’t purge/stop exercising! It’s not that hard!”

It IS actually that hard, and reducing your feedback down to a simple directive can be incredibly discouraging for your loved one. Just like many other mental illnesses, eating disorders are incredibly powerful even though they may not seem rational. Making an exasperated statement like this can come across as lacking compassion and vastly underestimates how difficult recovery is.

DO say, “I know this is incredibly difficult for you and I’m really proud.”

When someone is in the midst of battling an eating disorder, knowing that they’re not alone can be extremely important. Letting your loved one know that you see their struggle and how hard they’re working can helps instill hope and confirms your support for them.

3. DON’T say, “I’m so proud of you for eating!”

In most cases, commenting on someone’s eating behaviors is incredibly triggering. People with eating disorders are very concerned about other people noticing and judging their eating patterns, so even comments with a positive intent can be interpreted negatively. These comments can also feel condescending or patronizing to individuals who are struggling. There are rare cases where positive comments on eating might be included in your family therapy treatment plan, but you should consult your specific provider before trying this out.

DO say, “It was nice to spend time with you.”

When eating disorders get severe, they can interfere in family meal times or individuals can avoid spending much time with others so that they can engage in disordered behaviors privately. Telling your loved one that you enjoy spending time with them (after a meal or otherwise) reinforces that you care about having them around.

4. DON’T say, “I’m/she’s so fat! I can’t believe it!”

Body talk about yourself or others is incredibly triggering to someone with an eating disorder. Whether it’s directed at someone else or yourself, commenting on appearances can reinforce to your loved one that people might be paying attention to their size. It can also serve to undermine your personal relationship with them as they may assume you are also judging them negatively.

DO comment on positive personality traits instead of appearance.

While it can be a natural instinct to make observations about physical appearances, it’s most helpful and healthy to try to focus on personality traits and a person’s character – after all, that’s what really matters! Commenting positively on the traits you admire in others and yourself will reinforce to your loved one that others appreciate them for who they are, not what they look like.

5. DON’T say, “You’re not fat – you look so healthy!”

It can be tempting to compliment or reassure your loved one, particularly if they have worked hard to get to a healthy body as a part of their recovery OR if they ask for reassurance that they are not fat. However, any comment on physical appearance can be extremely triggering to someone with an eating disorder. It is a reminder that people are paying attention to them and in turn can serve as a justification for disordered behaviors to try to get to the desired size.

DO say, “You’ve seemed so joyful and I really love _______ about you!”

It is truly best to not comment on physical appearance at all, but it can be helpful to compliment on any positive changes you’ve seen in your loved one’s mood or attitude as a result of their work in recovery. This lets them know that you see their hard work while reducing the emphasis on appearance. If they specifically ask if they appear fat, it is a good idea to redirect again to the positive traits you notice in their mood and spirit.

Navigating a loved one’s eating disorder can be difficult and overwhelming. While this is not an exhaustive list of helpful and unhelpful comments, hopefully it provides a groundwork for the types of conversations you can foster. Ultimately, communicating that you care and will be there for your loved one throughout their journey is the foundation of a positive, supportive relationship. And don’t forget that you need support too! Contact Northside Consulting today to find resources including individual therapists and support groups for you and your loved one.