Written by Meg McCabe
Eating disorders are inherently baffling for those who’ve never experienced them. If you’re a friend, family member or spouse of an individual living with an eating disorder, chances are you’re confused on how to help them. This blog will outline a few steps you can take (in no particular order) to help your loved one through eating disorder recovery.
Educate yourself on Eating Disorders and Diet Culture
To help your loved one, it is important that you do your best to understand what eating disorders are and the signs and symptoms of the mental illness. There are several different types of eating disorders to familiarize yourself with including Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder and Orthorexia. Each individual’s eating disorder typically manifests itself in a nuanced way so the signs, symptoms and behaviours may vary from person to person. There are also several sub-types of eating disorders that you can read about in the Eating Disorder Sourcebook by Carolyn Costin. Beat or The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) websites are also a good starting point to learn more.
And not surprisingly, diet culture is the #1 contributing environmental factor for the onset of eating disorders. If your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, there is a chance diet culture impacted their relationship with food and their body image in a negative way.
There is a comprehensive list of eating disorder resources for you to explore here.
Remember, as much as you research and learn about eating disorders and diet culture, it is important to accept that you may never fully understand what your loved one is going through, but it is 100% possible to help them nevertheless.
Open the conversation without judgement
If you’ve observed your loved one struggling with food and body image, it is important to talk to them directly about their experience. Any conversation about mental health concerns can feel a bit awkward at first, but if you approach them with patience, gentle concern, respect and an open mind, the discussion doesn’t have to be as difficult as you think.
I highly recommend starting this conversation by sharing a neutral observation about your loved one’s behavior and expressing your concern without judgement. An example of this might be: “I’ve noticed you’ve been skipping breakfast lately and I am concerned about you. Do you think you might be struggling with an eating disorder?” When you open the conversation in this way, it shows reason for your concern without being attacking. Expressing your concern with “I” statements also keeps your loved one off the defensive.
Once the conversation has started, remember that your most important job is to listen in that moment (again, without judgement). Stay calm, and let your loved one fully express themselves. There is no need to challenge them in that moment.
Encourage appropriate professional help
Treatment for eating disorders is not a one-size-fits all approach. Depending on the severity of the illness, insurance limitations, location and access to resources, each person’s recovery plan is unique. Sometimes, it might be appropriate for your loved one to go to a residential treatment center for several weeks, or perhaps just go to a day clinic a few days per week. If they’re medically unstable, hospitalisation is also an option. If your loved one is medically stable and prefers the outpatient approach, it is helpful to build a team of trusted recovery professionals. Each professional has a unique role is supporting recovery:
General Practitioner: monitors physical symptoms, weight restoration process and bloodwork
Psychiatrist: has the ability to diagnose and prescribe psychiatric medications and oversees hospital admissions
Psychologist/Therapist: supports the individual in processing the roots of their disorder and any trauma related to it.
Dietitian: creates a meal plan, provides nutrition education and also helps with weight restoration
Recovery Coach: assists with behavior change, mindset work and body image concerns
Be aware of triggering comments and behaviors
Have you ever said a comment to your loved one that seems harmless and suddenly, they’ve erupted into tears? If so, chances are you could have accidently triggered them with your words.
In mental health, a trigger can be anything- including memories, comments or experiences, that cause an intense emotional reaction, regardless of one’s current mood.
Triggers are different for everyone. When a person is triggered, they might feel tempted to engage in eating disorder behaviors to cope. As a family member, you can help prevent triggers by being mindful of what you say and do around your loved one and within your home during their recovery period. For instance, if you are on a diet, it would not be appropriate to talk about weight loss or fad diets around them.
It would also be inappropriate to make comments about their body or yours. Comments about size, food rules, changes in weight, body insecurities can also be triggering. Using diet substitutes in the home, skipping meals or even being obsessive over your own exercise regime may also trigger your loved one so that they want to cling tighter to their eating disorder.
Offer practical help too
If you’re not fully comfortable with being emotionally supportive, there are other ways you can help your loved one through their recovery. Simple actions of support can speak volumes without saying anything. Recovery can be difficult, so assisting your loved one in small ways will make their life easier. For instance, you could:
Drive them to appointments
Offer to attend a support group with them
Offer to call the insurance companies to get questions answered
Cook meals and/or eat together
Go grocery shopping together
Cover nutrition labels within the home
Assist in throwing out clothes that no longer fit or shopping for new clothes that do
Encourage self-care activities (meditation, yoga, bubble bath etc).
And remember, there is also nothing wrong with asking your loved one “how can I help?”
Eating Disorder Recovery can be troublesome for the entire family. Your willingness to better understand eating disorders and be involved with the eating disorder recovery process will increase your loved one’s likelihood of reaching full recovery.
Meg is a certified eating disorder recovery coach, educator, writer and mental health advocate. She recovered from her own eating disorder in her 20's and is passionate about helping women heal their relationships with food, their bodies and themselves. Meg supports women to transform from survivor to recovered warrior. For more information about Meg's services and recovery coaching, please go to www.meg-mccabe.com and follow her on instagram at @meg_mccabe.
Talia is a registered dietitian working in private practice and as an eating disorder specialist dietitian in London's leading private mental health hospital. As a freelance dietitian, Talia not only offers 1:1 consultations but can present at your workplace, create recipes or articles or host a cooking demonstration. To enquire please fill out a contact form.