12 Things You Shouldn't Say To People Recovering From Eating Disorders
From my personal experience, I can tell you that recovering from an eating disorder is a full-time job.
Day in and day out, it takes a tremendous amount of mental, emotional and physical effort to fight the familiar ways of living and make the positive choices recovery requires.
Recovery is absolutely vital.
It not only improves every aspect of your life, but it also prevents you from becoming a part of the alarming statistic.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses.
Unfortunately, as hard as recovery typically is, people in our everyday lives — including our loved ones — often don’t help the healing process.
It isn’t that our friends and family members have bad intentions.
On the contrary, I’ve found these individuals genuinely think they are saying something helpful.
But, they don’t realize how their words may have the opposite effect.
There are many eating disorder myths, and there are tremendous stereotypes regarding them as well.
Many people think of the phrase “eating disorder” and associate it with weight and food.
Although weight and food are related to eating disorders, one must remember an eating disorder is fundamentally a disease of the mind.
I have personally struggled with severe eating disorders in many forms, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.
Although my body took on wildly different shapes, I can assure you my mind remained stubbornly the same.
From personal experience, you need to know the mind will often misinterpret what you say, no matter how the eating disorder is physically manifested.
Therefore, it is important to recognize the kinds of statements you should avoid making to anyone recovering from an eating disorder, in order to best support his or her continued progress:
1. “Wow, you’ve gained so much weight. You look great!”
While you may intend this to be a compliment, it is often twisted into the exact opposite.
For instance, when I put on weight while battling anorexia, those around me were so relieved because, to them, things “looked” to be getting better.
What they didn’t know is, I heard their words and turned them into insults.
Endless thoughts ran through my mind.
Am I fat?
Do I look healthy now?
Have I gained too much weight?
If people think I look great, why does my treatment team say I haven’t yet reached an appropriate weight?
Should I stop gaining weight now?
Maybe I should lose weight to make sure this doesn’t get out of hand. In fact, I should probably lose a lot of weight so people stop complimenting me because my mind sure doesn’t match my appearance.
As you can see, I created a host of dangerous thoughts, thanks to one simple compliment.
Remember that the body can physically recover in a matter of months, but the mind can take years.
Just because one appears better on the outside does not mean the person is mentally ready in the recovery process to handle such feedback.
2. “Wow! You’ve lost so much weight.”
This is, again, a very dangerous statement.
When I was struggling with anorexia, I would take this as a compliment.
In fact, I loved it when people told me I had lost weight, even when they didn’t mean it as a compliment.
The statement only served to fuel my disease and make me feel more in control and successful.
This, in turn, often caused me to relapse.
It is important to note that not everyone struggling with anorexia is underweight.
When you praise people for their changing appearance, you may not realize the dangerous behaviors that lie behind the transformation.
This type of statement can also harm the recovery process for those with bulimia and binge eating disorder.
When I was overweight, praise for my weight loss almost always caused my recovery efforts to backfire.
Often, I would take such statements as insults, thinking, “I must have been so much fatter before.”
This would often cause me to want to take drastic, unsustainable measures to lose weight even faster, which would inevitably lead to disappointment when I couldn’t meet my unrealistic goals.
The sense of failure — along with starvation — would then lead me to binge and put back all the weight I had lost, if not more.
The result was a vicious cycle and desperate trap.
Remember that recovery is about making healthy and sustainable choices, which can be tough when others give you positive validation for your weight loss.
3. “I wish I had your control and discipline.”
No, you don’t.
Having an eating disorder is a disease. It is a mental illness I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.
You might see a glimpse of our lives and think they look controlled and orderly, but you don’t see the insane rituals and behaviors that constantly consume us.
You don’t hear a monster in your head, screaming at you to live a life that is bound by rules and discipline.
We want nothing more than to be free and to trust that we don’t need our eating disorder to keep us safe.
Part of our recovery process is learning to let go of the obsessive rigidity.
Please don’t reinforce the ridiculous rules we desperately need to break before they completely destroy us.
4. “Do you have any weight loss advice?”
No, no and no again.
I can’t tell you how many people who know about my long history of struggling with eating disorders have come to me for weight loss advice.
In fact, I’ve had people ask me for such advice when I was clearly anorexic.
This is incredibly disturbing to me, and it should be for you as well.
Obviously, I could give anyone weight loss advice, but it would be at the expense of my own mental well-being.
It's not up for bargain.
Most people with eating disorders could have degrees in nutrition.
Most of us know the calorie count of almost every single food in the world, without even having to look it up.
When it comes to diets and dangerous ways to lose weight, we know it all.
But those of us trying to leave this awful lifestyle behind never — under any circumstances — want to talk about it.
5. “You’re eating so healthily. Are you on a diet?”
There might only be good intentions behind this question, but for those in recovery, it isn’t going to sit well.
For example, if I were trying my hardest to recover from anorexia and someone made this statement while I was eating an apple, my mind might start spinning.
Am I not in recovery?
Should I be eating ice cream or something more challenging?
Am I not doing as well as other people recovering from eating disorders? I see them posting pictures of all their food challenges on social media sites.
Am I still playing it too safe?
On the other hand, while eating that apple, I might be on the verge of relapse.
Then, the statement may cause my mind to spin differently.
I like that comment. It sounds familiar.
I bet I can do better. I bet I can eat healthier.
I can get thinner. I can take this further.
For those recovering from bulimia or binge eating disorder, it could be a challenge to just eat smaller portions or new foods.
They might be following instructions from a professional dietician, and they could be learning to eat all types of food groups in moderation.
By making comments on their food choices, you could be taking away from their progress toward balance.
Diet and recovery do not ever go together.
6. “That’s really unhealthy and has a lot of calories.”
This is such an unhelpful statement for anyone in recovery.
It doesn't matter if you are recovering from anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. The ultimate goal is to be able to eat all foods in moderation.
That means if you see us eating a donut or getting an ice cream, we actually may be experiencing a huge victory against our eating disorder by challenging ourselves to a fear food or a food we once abused.
Once again, calories and recovery do not go together.
7. “You look so healthy.”
This is an interesting statement, but one I feel needs to be brought up.
Often times, people with eating disorders fear the word “healthy” more than any other word.
I used to believe that if I were healthy, I would lose my identity.
I would have no reason to struggle, and so I would lose my excuse for not attaining success or happiness.
There are many different reasons people with eating disorders fear getting healthy, but it is a commonly shared expression.
Many of us aren’t sure who we are without an eating disorder, so we think healthy equals recovered.
It does not.
This is where society can, unfortunately, unintentionally interfere with the recovery process.
Remember eating disorders are about the mind, not the body.
Our appearance tells you very little about the state of our health.
8. “All you have to do is eat and exercise normally.”
This isn’t helpful at all.
As someone without an eating disorder, you may think the answer is to simply eat and exercise normally.
You have to understand this is like telling a recovering alcoholic to just have one drink while partying with friends every night.
Then, everything will magically be fine.
Of course, it’s not so easy.
9. “You look really different. Are you relapsing?”
Recovery is anything but linear.
Recovery is full of ups and downs, and it is often composed of two steps forward and one step back.
During the recovery process, our weight might swing to what the public perceives as the “wrong” direction.
But, that doesn’t always equate to relapse.
This is a very sensitive subject, and it's not one to bring up unless you are significantly worried.
If you are worried, it is best to involve an experienced treatment professional.
I also find it important to note we are human. We are not robots.
It’s natural for our weight to fluctuate from time to time.
No one is more sensitive to weight changes than we are, so you don’t need to point it out to us.
We are working overtime to overcome our fears and insecurities, and we don’t need to feel like others believe we are failing.
10. “You have such a great life. How can you be struggling?”
This is a tough one.
I personally grew up in a beautiful town with a loving, supportive family and athletic and academic gifts.
So how could such a picture-perfect girl end up with such a terrible eating disorder?
People develop eating disorders for several reasons, including genetics, personality, peers, environment, family and traumatic events.
What could be the right combination to trigger an eating disorder in one person might have a far different effect on another.
There are so many factors that combine to create “the perfect storm,” and it has little to do with “having a great life.”
If anything, hearing such a comment only makes those struggling feel even more guilty.
In reality, they have enough guilt to overcome.
Eating disorders do not discriminate, and they are not a choice.
11. “I had an eating disorder too for a few months. I understand.”
No, you probably don’t understand.
I have struggled immensely with eating disorders for over a decade, and I have enough personal experience to probably be considered an expert.
Still, I will never be able to fully put myself in another sufferer’s shoes.
I can relate and I can offer support, but I can never fully know the pain or complete life story of another person.
There isn’t anything wrong with supporting someone or looking to inspire him or her to get better.
But at the very least, make sure you don’t take the position of a know-it-all.
Please save yourself from appearing silly, and educate yourself on what struggling with an eating disorder really entails before you make a casual statement.
The word “eating disorder” should never be thrown around lightly, period.
End of story.
12. “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.”
This is a huge red flag.
I have touched on this previously, but I will give you one alarming example.
When I was struggling with bulimia, I was at a normal weight.
To the public eye, I looked healthy.
I put on a smile, and no one would think, “Oh, she’s struggling with an eating disorder.”
But what they didn’t see was the rest of my life. They didn’t see the other 23 hours of my day.
They couldn’t possibly know from my appearance that I could have lost my life at any time due to the dangerous behaviors I exhibited.
Remember this is a mental illness.
This is about the mind.
You can’t see that, can you?
These are some major statements I feel are important to avoid saying while interacting with someone recovering from an eating disorder.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn't talk to us.
If anything, we want to be included. We want to have conversations, and we want to hear praise.
It’s just about picking the right types of things to discuss and the right types of praise to provide.
Ask us how our day went.
Talk about the weather, the news or anything else unrelated to body, weight and food.
Sometimes, what we need most is just your quiet, compassionate presence while you listen to us speak, no matter whether you understand what we're going through or not.
Those of us in recovery have had more than our fair share obsessing about food and weight, so as we are looking to break free from our negative thoughts and dangerous behaviors, we want to learn we have a place in this world without our eating disorder.
Show us we are incredible people, just as we are.
In fact, show us that life without an eating disorder is only going to offer us more love, safety and acceptance.
Show us we have something wonderful to look forward to.
No one should struggle in silence, and no one should recover alone.
Please take the time to view many of the helpful eating disorder resources available to better support yourself or those you care about.