If you have a loved one who has stopped eating, or has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, it is normal to feel many emotions. It is startling to notice a change in eating patterns and weight in someone you care about. Witnessing the descent into an eating disorder can be devastating. Perhaps you are terrified and feeling alone. You may be angry or even disappointed in your loved one. Most likely you are confused about what to do next.
Getting a correct diagnosis
There are various reasons someone’s intake of food may decrease. Many mental health illnesses have symptoms that affect appetite and food intake. Eating disorders often co-occur with other disorders such as depression, anxiety. and mood disorders.
Changes in appetite may occur in response to grief, loss, and trauma. There are also numerous physical illnesses that can affect someone’s appetite and intake of food. If you have noticed a dramatic change in someone you love and care about, the first step towards help will likely include an accurate diagnosis by a medical professional.
When they stopped eating because of an eating disorder…
If your loved one has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, or you’re witnessing them descend into a relapse of a disorder they previously battled- you may feel scared and powerless. If you are concerned and want to help, please read on.
8 Things To Do If Your Loved One Has Stopped Eating
1. Express How You Feel
Talk to your loved one openly and honestly. Tell them why you are worried and what you have noticed. But, DON’T focus simply on the food/body aspect. This is very important.
While on the surface eating disorders seem to be all about food and body- they are a symptom of a much deeper concern.
Focus on other signs that are worrying you. Have you noticed changes in their mood and attitude? Are there disturbances in sleep? Has there been a change in their ability to be present in conversations, to concentrate, or to share joy? Is there a difference in their energy level? Have they stopped participating in activities they used to enjoy? Are there changes in their relationships?
Again, when telling someone you love that you are worried about them- try your best to stay away from focusing on their body. Their body size, their weight, and what they eat are symptoms of something deeper.
Remember: just because they stopped eating, does not mean it is only about the food.
This is a tough one, especially when feelings of concern and fear are running high. Often people with eating disorders feel unable to voice their true fears and feeling. They may be lonely, confused, and scared. It is also likely they do not feel seen, heard, or understood.
Ask your loved one HOW they are feeling. And what fears they have. How their friendships are going. What they feel like when they wake up in the morning. And when was the last time they felt free and present?
And then listen to them. Allow them to talk without interruption. Even if you can not understand why they feel a certain way, accept that they are expressing their true experience to you. Try not to judge them and do not tell them they “shouldn’t” feel a certain way. Your loved one needs to know that their own experience and their feelings matter.
If they are comfortable sharing their feelings about their body and food, it is especially crucial you listen with an open mind. Do not get caught in an argument over their body size and if they “need” to lose or gain weight. Rationalizing with someone who has descended into an eating disorder can be like banging your head against a wall.
And remember- it is not just about the food.
Most importantly, do not assume you know how they feel simply because they don’t like their reflection in the mirror. Sinking into an eating disorder is very different than not liking the size of your thighs.
3. Educate Yourself on Diet Culture and Health At Every Size
Eating disorders are often viewed as a problem an individual has. We forget that each one of us exists within a larger context of our families, relationships, and our society. We are all swimming in a culture that is obsessed with dieting and weight loss in the pursuit of health. From doctors, to magazines, to our mothers- we have been bombarded with messages about our bodies our entire lives.
The problem is: much of what we have been told about weight, food, and health simply is not true.
Educating yourself about Health At Every Size will help you understand that the framework of our society’s view on “health” is not accurate. In order to heal, your loved one will need to challenge the lies of diet culture. This is an incredibly difficult task, as it is counter-culture. The task becomes even harder if their loved ones are still immersed in diet culture.
Let me be clear: if your loved one must continue to face diet culture even when they are around you- you are not supporting their recovery.
Open your mind to the possibility that what you have learned about food, bodies, weight, and health is not the full picture. Dig into the research that supports Health at Every Size. There are many amazing resources out there.
- Health At Every Size – The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, by Lindo Bacon
- Anti Diet- Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, by Christy Harrison
- Body Respect- What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight, by Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramor
- Recovery Warriors– we have thousands of informational and inspirational articles as well as podcasts, workshops, and even an app to provide support for people recovering from an eating disorder
4. Stop Talking About Their Food and Body
I understand you are worried because your loved one stopped eating.
It is alarming to witness them shrink before your eyes. Please remember:
Eating disorders are NOT solely about the food and body. They are symptoms of a deeper issue.
This is so important to understand. The behaviors people with eating disorders use vary but all of the behaviors are serving a purpose. Whether your loved one simply stopped eating, is over-exercising, or is binging and/or purging, these behaviors are distracting them from coping with deeper feelings, situations, and stressors.
Yes, helping your loved one learn to nourish themselves again is a key part of recovery. But it should be up to the person’s treatment team. As much as you would like to be able to “fix” this situation, that is not your responsibility (or even in your capability). Talk with their team to find out the ways you can be most supportive.
5. Stop Talking About Your Body
This one is straightforward but difficult for many. Stop talking about your own body. Whether you berate yourself, engage in dieting, or praise your looks every time you see your reflection- it is simply not helpful to talk about your body.
What may feel like innocent chatter to you about your hips or stomach size sends a different message to your loved one. Recovering from an eating disorder requires someone to reject the idea that our body shape and size are very important. Again, this is counter-culture. And again, this is even harder to do when everyone around you constantly focuses on bodies and their shapes and sizes.
From a very young age it is common in our society to comment on body size and shape. This sends a message that body shape and size are important and valued.
If you want your loved one to believe that their body shape or size does not affect the way you feel about them- then act like it.
Stop talking about bodies like they are the most important thing. There are so many more interesting things to focus on.
It is imperative for your loved one to learn that we are so much more than our bodies. We are the souls within our bodies. Learning and accepting this truth can feel extremely lonely in a world obsessed with looks. By doing this work yourself, you can also be there with your loved one. So they are not alone.
6. Find and Accept Help for Yourself
Watching a loved one suffer from an eating disorder is incredibly difficult. You need and deserve support for yourself.
By reaching out and accepting help you not only gain support for yourself. You also model to your loved one that it is OK to ask for and receive help.
Your loved one notices and watches. If you expect them to be vulnerable, to open up, and to trust the support and guidance of a professional- you must be willing to do the same. There are many amazing resources available. Connecting with other loved ones who are going through similar challenges can be extremely valuable for you and for your loved one. Find a support group for family members of people struggling with eating disorders. Consider finding a therapist for yourself if you do not already have one. They can help you work on setting boundaries, cope with difficult feelings that rise when a loved one is mentally ill, and they can connect you with other resources in your area.
By being open to learning and accepting support and change, you can model for them that no one is perfect. And that we are all continually growing and evolving.
- NEDA– The National Eating Disorders Association
- NAMI– The National Alliance on Mental Illness
- FEAST– Families Empowered And Supporting Treatment for Eating Disorders
7. Stop Blaming Yourself
Perhaps there are things you wish you had said or done differently. But we can not change the past. Getting stuck in a guilt and shame cycle will not help you or your loved one. These feelings actually contribute to the cycle of an eating disorder. Learning to confront and heal through your own guilt and shame will not only help you, but also show your loved one a positive role model.
Most of us are doing the best we can with what we know. You are a product of the very same culture that your loved one is. We have been conditioned to value appearance, looks, and body size.
Once you become educated, you can learn to make new choices.
You can show your loved one, as a role model, that you are resilient and open to learning.
Blaming yourself and sinking into guilt will not help you or your loved one who stopped eating.
Yes, it will be incredibly helpful if you choose to examine your own relationship with food and body. And learning to focus on other values (rather than appearance, shape, and size) can also benefit your loved one’s recovery. But the bottom line is- you did not cause their eating disorder and you alone can not “fix” it. Eating disorders are multifaceted with a combination of factors that lead to their development.
Most Of All- Do not lose hope if your loved one stopped eating.
Because while the responsibility to recover sits in their hands, you can provide them with love and support along the way. You can educate yourself and make changes in your own attitude towards food and body. And you can be a role model to your loved one- by showing them that we are all continually learning and growing.
(Last Updated: May 10, 2022)
#4 Needs to be edited to include Family Based Treatment, FBT families. You wrote “Yes, helping your loved one learn to nourish themselves again is a key part of recovery. But it should be up to the person’s treatment team. As much as you would like to be able to “fix” this situation, that is not your responsibility (or even in your capability). Talk with their team to find out the ways you can be most supportive.” Utilizing FBT, the best evidence-based methodology for non-acute adults and adolescents, the parents/carers ARE the majority of the treatment team. Please consider editing to include FBT.