How To Help A Loved One Living With An Eating Disorder, According To Experts

by Julia Guerra

National Eating Disorder week starts on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018, and will run through Sunday, March 4. Over the course of seven days, stories of those struggling, and those in recovery will be shared, and even though this week is dedicated to raising awareness of the disorder, it’s also an opportunity to inspire allies. As someone who has been on both sides of an ED, I understand how hard it is to go through it; I also realize it can be challenging to figure out how to help someone with an eating disorder, because no two journeys are alike. Even though approaching the subject is never easy, it’s always worth it, because chances are, that person knows you can’t eliminate their disorder, but you can support them, and that’s priceless.

You know how the saying goes, "you can't love someone, unless you love yourself?" Well, in my experience, it works both ways. Sometimes you need someone close to show you that your well-being matters, and despite how alone you may feel in your eating disorder, there are people who care about you and want to help you get better.

If you know a loved one is struggling, the first, and most important thing you can offer them is your unconditional support and love. From there, consider giving any (or all) of the following advice a try to show that person they truly aren't alone in their struggle.

Avoid Commenting On Their Eating In Any Context
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Personally, I would never comment on the way someone is eating in general, and maybe this is because I’ve struggled with an eating disorder, but one of the most important practices when it comes to helping someone through an ED is to refrain from food talk during a meal. Sure, you can comment on how delicious something tastes, but doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker Danielle Forshee, LLC suggests avoiding making the individual the focus at all costs.

“Try your best not to point out what that person is eating or not eating, or how much food they are or are not consuming,” Dr. Forshee tells Elite Daily. “Someone who struggles with an eating disorder typically finds it very embarrassing when people are watching or pointing out their eating behaviors, especially in front of other people.”

Suggest Ways You Can Practice Wellness Together
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Eating disorders are psychological, so mental health is definitely a primary focus through the recovery process. Encourage your loved one to join you for your next yoga class, or teach them all about silent meditation. Exploring wellness-driven activities, like vinyasa sequences, meditative journaling, and art classes, is a great way to show your loved one you care about them and, hopefully, open them up to self-acceptance through these experiences.

Heather Senior Monroe, director of Program Development at Newport Academy, tells Elite Daily that any activity that inspires “a sense of joy, flow, serenity, and safety,” can “change the neurological pathways in the brain.” And you know what they say about changing one’s mind: It can change their world.

Be Mindful Of Your Own Self-Talk Around Them
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Unfortunately, food is such a relevant topic in society; it's common for people at some point to consciously consider what they are eating, if it’s good for them, and how what they eat might affect the way they look. But this often falls under what I like to call "negative self-talk."

I don’t have to tell you that it’s toxic, but somehow, it’s become mainstream, and passing thoughts like “I feel fat,” or “these jeans make my legs look so skinny” mindlessly slip into conversation. Everyone should strive to be more mindful of this, but especially, Monroe points out, around someone struggling with an eating disorder.

“While it might not be serious to you, the way you describe yourself can have an impact on a friend with an eating disorder,” she tells Elite Daily. “Avoid phrases like, 'I used to be so skinny,' or 'Does this make me look fat?' as they may stir up feelings of guilt and shame.”

Do Your Own Research
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Especially if you are someone who has never personally dealt with an eating disorder or body image issues, delving into your own research on the subject can be very beneficial.

The first step is to identify what kind of eating disorder your loved one is experiencing. From there, the internet is a great resource. Sites like the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), The Academy of Eating Disorders, and Healthine, which has highlighted the best eating disorder blogs to read in 2017, can offer first-person perspectives, as well as expert-derived information. Iris Ruth Pastor, author of The Secret Life of a Weight-Obsessed Woman, who has struggled with an eating disorder for 46 years, also suggests meeting with professionals to get advice first-hand.

“Talk to professionals for advice on how to proceed — such as a medical doctor, psychologist, or an eating disorder treatment center team member,” Pastor tells Elite Daily. “You can find a complete list of therapists and psychologists in your area easily, and also on Psychology Today.”

Another great resource, she says are books written on eating disorders either by those struggling, family members who might be in the same boat as you, and/or medical professionals. She highly recommends giving Food for Thought by Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin a read.

Be Open For Conversation When They Need It Most
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Psychology Today reports that people who suffer from eating disorders often suffer in silence. This, the outlet explains, could be because of trust issues, discomfort, loneliness, and, possibly, feelings of shame. Social withdrawal on top of an eating disorder can be dangerous because the person isn’t getting the help they need to overcome the disorder.

While it might be hard for you, as the listener, to take in what your loved one has to say about their experience and feelings, the act of listening is one of the simplest, yet most rewarding ways you can be there for them. Sitting them down and forcing them to talk is unproductive, as they might shut down, but making sure they know the line of communication is open, and you are there to listen whenever they’re ready to talk, is comforting.

When that time comes, however, keep tabs on your tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions, Pastor tells Elite Daily. “Stress that they are not alone, and that recovery is possible,” while, at the same time, “show respect for their opinions and don’t judge the replies.”

It could even be beneficial to ask them, directly, what they need from you during this time. But don't become discouraged if even they don't know in the moment.

Seek Professional Help When Necessary
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Seeking professional help for someone can be tricky, because you don’t want to feel as if you’re crossing a line. However, if your loved one has not made the effort to get themselves the help they need, you could be doing them a huge favor.

Author of Healthy is The New Skinny Katie Willcox tells Elite Daily that, when you begin looking into professional help for your loved one, the best thing to do is talk to an eating disorder specialist first. The sooner you start the process, the sooner your loved one can get the help they need.

"It may take time to find the right treatment and the right therapist to meet the needs of the person you care about," she says. "Everyone responds differently to different types of treatment, and your doctor or specialist will advise you on which treatment they feel may be most beneficial."

The key is to know when to intervene. Dr. Forshee tells Elite Daily that before stepping in for your loved one, you have to first gather enough "behavior evidence" that they are, in fact, suffering from an eating disorder. Red flags, she explains, can include anything from your loved one avoiding eating food at family functions, noticing they have dropped a significant amount of weight, have become intense about exercise, or step on the scale multiple times a day. If you notice these behaviors becoming a pattern, then it's appropriate to speak up, says Dr. Forshee.

Above All Else, Be Patient
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As someone who still struggles with disordered eating and body dysmorphia, I can attest to the fact that recovery is not a program patients check into and come out of feeling 100 percent cured. In fact, Dr. Alexandra Roche, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Orange County, says it can take over five to six years for some patients to recover, “and this is while receiving support from a multidisciplinary team.”

Recovery is something you choose every day. Your loved one is going to have their setbacks, minor or major, but one of the most meaningful ways you can show them support is just by being patient because, like any illness, it isn’t always controllable.