Supporting a loved one through an eating disorder can be challenging, yet with understanding, compassion, and the right approach, you can make a significant difference in their recovery journey. If you’re looking to support someone through their battle with an eating disorder, here are five essential tips to guide you along this delicate path:

1. Educate Yourself About Eating Disorders

The first step in offering meaningful support is to understand what eating disorders are—and what they are not. Eating disorders, including Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and others, are complex mental health conditions that manifest through unhealthy eating habits, severe distress about body weight or shape, and often, a distorted perception of body image. They are not choices, but complex conditions that require professional treatment.

Educating yourself about the symptoms, triggers, and health risks associated with eating disorders can help you empathize with your loved one’s experience. Websites like the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), books, and reputable online resources can provide valuable insights.

2. Listen Without Judgment

The easiest and most SIMPLE way you can support someone with an eating disorder? Your presence—simply being there to listen, without judgment or the urge to fix things immediately. Encourage open communication, allowing them to share their feelings and experiences at their own pace. It’s important to acknowledge their emotions and validate their feelings, showing that you see and accept them, regardless of their eating disorder.

Remember, the goal isn’t to provide solutions during these conversations but to offer a safe space where they feel heard and understood. This approach fosters trust and strengthens your relationship, creating a foundation of support crucial for recovery.

3. Avoid All Weight Comments and Diet Talk

Comments about weight, body size, or dieting can be EXTREMELY triggering for someone with an eating disorder. Avoid these topics and instead focus on health, well-being, and the person’s qualities unrelated to physical appearance. 

Examples of comments to avoid include anything that praises or criticizes weight changes, such as “You look healthier with a little more weight on you” or “Have you lost weight? You look great!” These remarks, even when well-intentioned, can imply that a person’s worth or health is tied to their weight, potentially derailing their recovery process.

Similarly, diet talk, such as discussing calorie counts, labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” or talking about your own or others’ dieting habits, can be harmful. Comments like “I shouldn’t eat this, it’s so bad for me” or “I’m being good today, no carbs for me” can perpetuate a mindset of restriction and guilt around eating, which is counterproductive to the recovery from an eating disorder.

By consciously avoiding weight comments and diet talk, you’re helping to build a supportive space that prioritizes your loved one’s emotional and psychological recovery over societal pressures and norms related to body image and eating. This approach is not only beneficial for those recovering from an eating disorder but can also contribute to a healthier and more positive relationship with food and body image for everyone involved.

4. Celebrate “Small” Wins 

In the context of supporting a loved one through recovery from an eating disorder, what might appear as “small wins” are, in reality, significant milestones! For example, your loved one might share a positive experience related to food, like trying a new food or eating out at a restaurant they used to avoid. Or maybe they’ve found joy in a hobby that’s not related to exercise or weight loss. 

Celebrating these wins can be incredibly empowering for your loved one, reinforcing their strength and progress on the path to recovery. 

5. Encourage Professional Help

While your support is invaluable, recovery from an eating disorder often requires professional intervention. Encouraging your loved one to seek help from a qualified healthcare provider, such as a therapist, doctor, or Registered Dietitian, is a critical step in recovery. It’s important to approach this topic sensitively, emphasizing that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Offer to assist in the process, whether it’s researching potential health professionals, making the first call, or even accompanying them to appointments, if they wish. Your active involvement can make the daunting task of reaching out for help feel more realistic and less scary.

Final Thoughts

Navigating a loved one’s recovery from an eating disorder is no small task. Understanding the disorder, offering a non-judgmental ear, steering clear of diet and weight talk, celebrating every bit of progress, and advocating for professional help are more than just supportive actions; they are lifelines. These steps, rooted in genuine care and empathy, can truly be a game-changer for your loved one.

If you find yourself at a crossroads, unsure of how to best support your loved one or if they need more specialized care, reaching out for extra support is a step in the right direction. Feel free to get in touch with us here to see how we can work together toward healing.

How to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder