14 Things Your Loved One With an Eating Disorder Wants You To Know (But is Afraid to Tell You)

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How to explain an eating disorder to a loved one? Or to anyone for that matter?

Eating disorders are prevalent, complicated, and often stigmatized. People struggling with an eating disorder typically have difficulty speaking up and expressing their needs directly.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have some very well-intentioned and supportive friends and family in my life. Sadly, there are many times they’ve made comments or asked questions that were harmful to my recovery. But I didn’t speak up.

By writing out what I wish I had shared, I hope this article will help both those on the journey of recovery and those who are supporting their loved ones in recovery.

1. Understand that you don’t truly understand the eating disorder.

Most people have felt uncomfortable in their own skin living in a society that idealizes thinness.

But struggling with an eating disorder does not mean I simply, “feel fat”, and want to go on a diet. 

It means the more I focus on my fat, the less I can focus on anything else.

No matter how much weight I lose, it is never enough. And no matter what I look like, I am disgusted by my reflection. It means I do not see myself the way anyone else sees me. I go to extreme measures and lengths to try to change my body.

Eating disorders caused me to put weight loss ahead of friends, my family, and my health. Worst of all, even as I realized I was doing it, I felt like I could not stop it. So when trying to explain an eating disorder to our loved ones we want you to know this:

It is overwhelming, all consuming, lonely, and terrifying.

2. An eating disorder is about so much more than food and weight.

People with eating disorders come in every shape and size. A person’s weight or what they do with food is a symptom of much larger issues going on inside of the person.

Assuming eating disorders are simply about the food and weight is like assuming lung cancer is only about coughing, and can be simply treated by giving cough drops or honey.

3. I have to face an eating disorder every day.

Unlike an addict who abstains from their substance of choice, a person with an eating disorder must face eating food 3-5 times a day… Every. Single. Day. 

Each day can be filled with multiple challenges other people find typical. Having a stomach bug, dental work, or even a very heavily scheduled day are opportunities for recovery to be derailed and the eating disorder to creep in.

And similar to an addict, I often experience a sort of psychological “high” from using symptoms. While I logically know they are not good for me, I have strong urges that are difficult to resist.

4. Just because I think I am fat, does not mean I think YOU are fat.

While eating disorders do thrive off of comparing ourselves to those around us, it is such an insidious and tricky phenomenon. The deeper someone falls into an eating disorder, often the more distorted their view of themselves and others becomes.

Simply put, I do not see myself the way you see me, and it can genuinely make me feel insane. Not only is it impossible for me to see myself clearly, but I also hold myself to an impossibly higher set of standards than I hold anyone else to. It doesn’t make sense. But neither do eating disorders.

5. Just because I have gained weight, it does not mean I am “all better” or recovered from the eating disorder.

Eating disorders are about so much more than food, eating, and weight. When we explain an eating disorder to a loved one this is often times a recurring topic.

You cannot tell if someone is healthy or recovered based on their size or weight.

Many people who struggle with eating disorders vacillate between various symptoms that may or may not affect their weight. While all of recovery is hard (including asking for help, introducing new foods, and possibly weight gain), I believe the most difficult part is after the weight has been restored.

It can be a constant battle to choose recovery from the eating disorder every single moment of the day.

And once weight is restored often support has also lessened. So rather than assuming you know how your loved one is doing based on their appearance if you honestly want to know, please ask them directly.

6. I want to answer honestly when you ask how I’m doing, but it’s hard.

I am ashamed of my struggles and often frustrated by my difficulties. I am afraid that this eating disorder defines who I am as a person and that it always will.

It is a process and I do believe in full recovery, but I am not there yet. I am still finding my way.

7. Many normal activities you find easy or natural are hard for me. Really hard.

Such as eating at restaurants. Or grocery shopping. Or eating at a party or social gathering. I may appear calm on the outside, but if I am in recovery from an eating disorder, I am likely very good at covering up my feelings.

8. Please don’t comment on my food. EVER.

Especially when I am eating or trying to choke it down. Saying how big my serving is or how surprised you are when I eat a lot only feeds my sick eating disorder voice. 

Not only does it draw attention to the food which is likely causing me anxiety, but it also can be extremely triggering for me. When explaining what anorexia or any eating disorder is to a loved one this can be a tricky topic because people seems to love commenting on food intake.

I do not feel comfortable with you commenting on my food, what I am eating, how much, or when. Period.

9. Please don’t comment on my body shape or size.

If you tell me I have lost weight, my eating disorder is fed and I immediately want to lose more weight. Or panic sets in as I worry I have slipped without realizing it.

If you tell me that I look healthy, or “much better” your well-intentioned comment is quickly changed in my disordered head to mean “you are fat,” or “you are fine now.”  Any comment on weight is just not helpful.

And again, eating disorders are about more than food and weight.  This simply can not be said enough times.

10. Please don’t tell me about your diet. EVER.

It is not only inconsiderate and triggering, but it is also unhealthy. At the root of eating disorders is a false belief that losing weight will improve health and happiness. And someone with an eating disorder is constantly comparing themselves to others believing they simply do not measure up.

If you are truly interested in your loved one becoming healthy, educate yourself about health. Science simply does NOT support the use of diets to lose weight OR improve health.

If you don’t believe me, research it. There are many incredible resources and reading Health At Every Size by Lindo Bacon or Antidiet by Christy Harrison are great places to start.

11. I often live in fear that I will slide down the slippery slope back into my eating disorder.

When I explain my eating disorder to a loved one I want them to know that it is a paradox. I can vacillate between complete and utter denial- believing I am not thin or sick enough to even have an eating disorder- to feeling like one misstep and all of my hard work for recovery will be lost as I sink into a place where the eating disorder is larger than I am.

In this place, it truly feels like I am not capable of finding my way out.

12. As much as you would like to fix this for me, you can’t.

As much as I would like you to fix this for me, you can not.

If I am the one struggling with an eating disorder, it is up to me to choose recovery and to continue to choose recovery.

You can offer support and be there for me along the journey, but I must be the one to take the steps forward.

13. Recovery, just like life, is not perfect.

I have difficulty remembering this. I will undoubtedly fall down and take some steps backward. But please continue to believe in me and help me to see my steps forward, especially when I am unable to see them myself.

14. We need you, even when we don’t know how to ask for your support.

Eating disorders thrive on isolation, withdrawing, and hiding our emotions and thoughts. Through recovery, we are able to reconnect or create new relationships and connection is really what we all crave and thrive off of.

So thank you for your love, for your support, and for your patience.

To read more from Lisette and learn about opportunities to work with her in private coaching please visit her website here, or follow her on instagram here.

(Last updated: September 9, 2022)

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  1. says: Linette

    So… I’d like to ask a question. You’ve left a long list of things that people should NOT do or say and in #13 one indication that help is appreciated but no clues as to what is actually helpful. If, as you stated, reminding you of progress you have made is supposed to be helpful, how does one do that without mentioning weight or food since that’s what we’re dealing with? How do you talk truthfully about an issue without talking about the things that are directly related to it? I am seeking for understanding, I am not in anyway trying to stir up strife here. I just know what it’s like to walk around on eggshells around someone for fear of causing them triggers, but I don’t know what actions on my part are actually helpful. It seems like saying nothing and doing nothing are what you are asking us to do… Stay out, shut up and don’t talk about it. I don’t really see that as helpful in the long run and it can be very frustrating for those of us that love you…

  2. says: lisette

    Thank you for your comment Linette. First of all, I am sorry to hear that you have a loved one who is struggling- they are fortunate to have you as a support. I certainly did not intend to send the message that loved ones should stay out, shut up, and don’t talk about it, and I apologize if that is how it seems. Just like someone who has not struggled with an eating disorder can not truly understand what it is like, I can not understand what it is like to love someone who is struggling and not to be able to fix things for them. Eating disorders are so complicated and complex, unfortunately it is a lot easier to write about what is not helpful. I do not know your loved one or your own situation, the best advice I can give is to seek out support and education for yourself. Look for a support group for loved ones of people with eating disorders, participate in family therapy if appropriate, read about Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating, and ask questions to the professionals you are working with. As far as what would specifically help your loved one – talk to them and ask them what helps, what do they need, how do they FEEL, how are they doing? And LISTEN to them. Therapy can be so helpful with this. A lot of my don’t are based on the myth that eating disorders are only about food and weight, and they are about much bigger, deeper issues that unfortunately can not be solved with a list of 14 things. Definitely don’t ignore what is going on, but also realize you can be there to provide support and love but you can not fix this for them. Best wishes for you and your loved one.

  3. says: Jessica Raymond

    So spot on! Thank you for writing this piece, Lisette. It is so helpful for people who are supporting someone in recovery to know these things.

  4. says: Donna

    Quite possibly the most brilliant piece I have ever read on understanding the mindset of someone afflicted with anorexia nervosa. The question Linette brought up in the comments was equally enlightening…as was your response. I will be forwarding this to my recovery support group and my entire family. Just…BRAVO!

  5. says: Bradley

    Thank you so much I am in a year relationship with my girlfriend and knowing these 15 thing will help me help her so much more I love her with All my heart!!!!! THANK YOU!!!

  6. says: Leila

    Thank you Lisette for your honest, helpful article. I learned more about how a person with eating disorder feels emotionally from your article than all other scientific/educational articles about this problem. In my case I am super afraid of what I learned in scientific research’s articles of long term physical or mental effect of this sickness. My loved one refuses to seek professional help or any help at all. If I ask how I can hep? The answer is: STAY OUT OF IT. Do you think the way to help is stay out of it and watch her going deeper into eating disorder and getting closer to a sudden death or all the long term effects of this sickness on her mind and body? My dear you don’t need to be a mother to feel how it feels to lose a loved one to a battle that could be conquered. You like all of us have family members or friends that you might love dearly. It is the same thing; the only difference is by nature a mother feels to protect her kid as long as she lives. How am I protecting my kid if I just watch what is happening. If I ask her how I can help, as you mentioned, the answer from a person with eating disorder is just”leave me alone and pretend all is fine with me”! I am a feared, frustrated, helpless mother who is out of solutions. I don’t even know how to talk or act anymore in any area that does not end up hurting her. Please continue writing about this problem. What made you to decide you want to treat this sickness? What were the helpful/hopeful conversation you had with the person who was there to help you? what was your way of fighting back the attack of negative thoughts about food, gaining back your health or how you would look like if you eat healthy? I thank you again for sharing these information. I salute you for being so brave and honest in sharing your story. Best wishes, Leila

  7. Dear Leila,
    Thank you for your comment. First I want to extend my compassion- it must be so difficult as a mom to watch your daughter struggle. As a mother myself, I understand that seeing my children suffer is one of the hardest things in the world. Obviously I do not know you, your daughter, or your unique situation. I wish there was an easy answer to your questions. No, I do NOT think the answer is for you to “stay out of it,” and just watch her sink. At the same time, you alone can not heal your daughter. My suggestion would be to find a family therapist you trust and work with them. While family dynamics are not to blame for the disorder, they interact with it significantly. It may also be a good idea to find a therapist for yourself if you haven’t already done so. You will not only be learning about ways to cope and grow, but you will be a wonderful role model to your daughter. Also if you can find a support group in your area for loved ones of someone struggling with an eating disorder, that can be a huge benefit. My personal journey has been a long one, and ultimately I decided I no longer wanted to live my life all consumed by the eating disorder. I did have to make the choice to choose recovery, to accept help, and to continue to choose it every single day. But it is worth every bit of struggle it took to get where I am. I am not sure if your daughter has listened to any of the Recovery Warrior podcasts- but they were my intro into the world of recovery. Anyway, sending you and your daughter much love and support and prayers for healing.

  8. says: Linda

    I read your article after reading through so many articles on the Internet, my granddaughter has developed an eating disorder, I am very proud to say she has owned it and is seeking help with the help of her wonderful parents . She is only 2 weeks into professional help but my heartbreak is that I am finding it a little difficult to know what to talk to her about. Its like our conversations are drying up, I have told her how immensely proud I am of her for owning up to her problem and how much I love her and am always always there for her. I am so afraid of saying the wrong thing and upsetting her. Obviously at the moment she can no longer attend her dance classes or college which is her life and was always a topic for our conversations. I don’t think I have ever felt so helpless to my son, my daughter in law and especially to my beautiful granddaughter. How do other Grandparents deal with this its so so sad.

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