How (Not) to Support Someone With An Eating Disorder

Well, Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2018 kicks off tomorrow here in Calgary, so I thought I’d write a little something about how to support someone who might be struggling with an eating disorder (ED).

On second thought, in the spirit of keeping things interesting, let’s actually focus on how NOT to support someone with an eating disorder (ED).

1. Don’t Talk About Appearance


Often when we suspect that someone might be struggling with an eating disorder, our instinct might be to make some comment related to our loved one’s appearance. Examples include:


“You’re so skinny!”

“You’ve gained so much weight!”


This is not helpful. Not only will commenting on someone’s appearance risk making them feel bombarded/attacked/super awkward, but these statements can actually reinforce the eating disorder, by acting as a trigger or even motivation to engage in further eating disorder symptoms.


This also includes anyone who was/is in recovery from an eating disorder. Saying things like:


“You look so healthy!”

“You look so much better!”


You guessed it: not helpful. I know it seems counterintuitive, but comments like this can be devastating for someone working hard towards recovery.

What can you do instead?

A good rule of thumb in both of these scenarios is to focus on feelings, or in some cases behaviours:


Instead of saying: “You have lost so much weight!”


Try: “Are you okay? I feel really worried about you.”


Instead of saying: “You look so much healthier!”


Try: “I am so happy we get to spend time together, I missed you! How are you doing?”


2. Don’t Accuse or Interrogate


Spoiler Alert: Yelling at someone who has an eating disorder will not scare the disorder away.


I get it. Watching someone you love or care about propel into the depths of a serious mental illness is incredibly frustrating, heart-wrenching, and frankly - terrifying. Yelling or getting angry at the person who is struggling with an ED is not the answer.

Eating disorders are a group of illnesses that thrive off of isolation, secrecy, and shame. Yelling at the person struggling risks embedding the illness further.


With that said, you are allowed to feel frustrated, angry, and terrified.

Instead of taking out your anger on the person struggling, find ways that you can manage your own emotions (and there will be a lot of them!) whether it’s talking to a friend, family member, or mental health professional.

Caregiver burnout is real, and you cannot support your loved one’s if you are not okay yourself.


Try: “Are you okay? How can I help?”


3. Don’t Minimize the Disorder


Fact: Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. 


Do NOT tell someone to:

“Just go eat a sandwich.”

“Just go to the gym.”

“Just stop watching Keeping Up with The Kardashians.”

“Just stop going on Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat/newer social media that I don’t understand.”


This is not helpful. Eating disorders are serious psychiatric illnesses. Eating disorders are not a choice. Eating disorders are not about vanity.


And you know what else? Eating disorders are not about food or weight (I know, I know, just stay with me here); they are merely symptoms of much deeper struggles.

As Carrie Arnold says:

“This only reinforces the idea that EDs are an expression of vanity, or just a bunch of beauty-obsessed kids who need to stop reading magazines. And they’re not. Focus on this does everyone a disservice.”


You tell em' Carrie! Preach! 

Try: “What can I do to better support you?”


4. Don’t Make It About Yourself


Examples include:

“If you think that about your body, what do you think about mine?!”

“Do you know how hard this is for me?!”

The truth is: people’s eating disorders aren’t about anyone but themselves.

Eating disorders affect the way individuals think, feel, talk, and treat themselves, but chances are they would never think, feel, talk, or treat anyone else in the world the same way.

Try: “I see you are struggling, and I know this is hard, but I am here for you.”


5. Don’t Play Therapist


All together now! Eating disorders are a serious psychiatric illnesses!

Which means, they require professional support from a registered mental health professional, who specializes in eating disorders (ahem).  

Don’t get me wrong, support systems = great/amazing/necessary.

But if you are someone’s parent/sibling/spouse/co-worker/friend you cannot be their therapist. You are too close.


Eating disorders are really hard, so let’s not mess around okay?


Let’s help each other get the most appropriate kind of help/support/treatment, so that we can start to change the statistics regarding eating disorders for the better.


Want to learn more about eating disorders?


Great timing! Eating Disorders Awareness Week starts tomorrow.

There are a whole bunch of events happening all over the city, one of which is the screening of the amazing documentary Straight/Curve  at Fort Calgary on February 2nd 2018!

The film starts at 6:30 pm, and is followed by a panel discussion, moderated by yours truly. So, come hang out, watch a great film, and let’s talk about it! Click here to get your tickets

Click here for more details on all of the events happening throughout Calgary as a part of Eating Disorders Awareness Week!


If you or anyone you know in the Calgary area is experiencing a mental health crisis call the 24-hour Distress Centre line at 403-266-4357 or 911.