What To Say to Someone With an Eating Disorder

May 21, 2023

Eating disorders affect both the person struggling and those around them. As a loved one, it makes sense to feel desperate for what to say. You want to help your friend or family member,but often, what you want to say to them might not actually be helpful and can sometimes even be harmful. Here we give some tips on how to support someone with an eating disorder, as well as resources to educate yourself. 

Check-in with Your Intentions

Words can be tricky. Often in conversations, what we say doesn’t reflect our true thoughts and feelings. When talking about heavier topics, like eating disorders, it’s crucial to be mindful of the potential discrepancy between your intent and the impact your words may have. While you may have good intentions, certain remarks or comments can unintentionally harm or trigger the individual, emphasizing the need for sensitivity and empathy in every conversation.

For example, when someone says “You look healthy” to someone with an eating disorder, their intention is probably to share support and excitement over their recovery. But for the person suffering, that statement can trigger the feeling that their personal worth is dictated by their appearance. 

Before engaging in supportive conversations, it is essential to reflect on your own emotional state. If you have a loved one struggling with an eating disorder, it’s natural to experience fear regarding their well-being or sadness witnessing their suffering. It makes sense to feel sad that they have low self-esteem or be scared about extreme weight loss. As a caregiver, you may also grapple with feelings of guilt, believing you have somehow “caused” them to struggle or let them down. While acknowledging your emotions is important, you must recognize that they may be based on misconceptions. For instance, it’s vital to understand that no single person or event is responsible for causing someone’s eating disorder. These complex mental illnesses arise from a combination of genetic, societal, and various other factors.

people holding hands across a table


Talking About Their ED

It’s important to remember that your loved one is not their eating disorder.Continue treating them as a whole and complex person, just like anyone else. But take the initiative to learn about eating disorders, and don’t rely on them to teach you. Often, these mental health conditions are portrayed incorrectly or through a narrow lens in mainstream media. Don’t expect someone to fit a certain mold. Our culture creates harmful narratives about eating disorders being a choice, looking a certain way, and neglecting marginalized communities. 

Educating yourself on eating disorders is a great first step to help shape your conversations around them and inform your support. We have a wealth of resources on The Alliance’s website. Check out our pages on Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge eating disorder, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED) to learn the general symptoms and signs of each eating disorder. Our blog is a great resource as well to learn more about eating disorders, how to support your loved one, and get diverse perspectives from treatment experts and individuals recovering from eating disorders. 

What to Say

“I might not understand, but I love you and am here to listen.”

What Not to Say

This is what an eating disorder looks like.”

Finding Treatment

When discussing eating disorder treatment options, it’s important to avoid giving unsolicited advice or dictating your loved one’s path to recovery. This is a very tricky balance between advocating for treatment and respecting their autonomy. Finding treatment is a necessity, but it’s important to give the person dealing with an eating disorder agency in their treatment journey. Be a supportive ally in helping them find professional help like an eating disorder-specialized provider. 

You can ask what they are looking for in an outpatient therapist or treatment center and help them research different options. This will empower them to make informed decisions about their treatment journey, giving them the agency they need for their eating disorder recovery. Lastly, when talking about treatment with someone, don’t assume they will be recovered by a certain time or expect their recovery will be linear. Progress can have ups and downs and look different for everyone. Reinforce the idea that healing is possible and that they deserve a happy, healthy life.

What to Say

“I believe in you.”

What Not to Say

“You should try…[this treatment/solution]” or “This is how your recovery should look:__”

Showing Empathy

Showing your loved one that you are there for them and love them is the most important thing to communicate. Be careful of statements that may be intended to show understanding, but can end up coming across as dismissive. For example, telling someone “I understand how you feel” can be quite belittling. It’s crucial to acknowledge that you may not fully comprehend your loved one’s experience. Avoid comparing their struggle to your own, and instead, offer a listening ear and ask how you can best support them.

What to Say

“How are you?”

“This is so difficult, and you bring so much value to me and the world.”

What Not to Say

“You’re overreacting.”

Giving Compliments

Don’t comment on weight changes or appearance, even if you perceive them to be “positive.” Sentiments like you look healthier or you look too skinny keeps attention on their physical appearance. Drawing attention to changes in a person’s looks or eating behaviors can be triggering for their eating disorder. Instead, give compliments on other aspects of their personality. Words of affirmation are still valuable, but it’s important to be more mindful about what kinds of compliments you are giving. This speaks to our culture’s obsession with how people look. Make it a practice to complement other characteristics of people throughout your life. Affirm someone’s attitude, energy levels, talents, or something else they offer the world.

What to Say

“I love how caring you are to your siblings.”

“You have such magnetic and fun energy!”

What Not to Say

“You look healthier.”

two people each making half of a heart with their hands

Showing Support

As a part of your loved one’s community, you want to offer support in any way you can. Using I statements, asking how someone wants to be supported, and sending care are all ways to show your support without being overbearing.

Express your genuine concern and unwavering support, reassuring them that they are not alone. Using “I statements” is a great way to share your feelings without the person feeling like it’s their fault. Let them know you’re there to listen and support them, but avoid forcing a conversation. If you do want to check in, choose an appropriate time and place to have that conversation, respecting their boundaries. Recognize that each person’s experience with disordered eating or an eating disorder is unique, so asking how you can support them acknowledges their autonomy and allows them to share their needs and preferences. 

Additionally, occasionally sending messages expressing that they are on your mind or that you’re thinking of them can show your support. This will remind them that you are there, and allow them to approach you on their own terms. Finally, don’t underestimate the power of telling them you love them, reinforcing that your care for them goes beyond their struggles. Whenever you send a message of love or support, don’t make the conversation about you. Whether your loved one responds, is grateful, or doesn’t say anything back is up to them. Being upset that they don’t take your support can further alienate them and may harm your relationship.

What to Say

“I’m here for you, and I’m not going anywhere.”

“How can I support you?”

What Not to Say

“You just need to eat more/less.”

Find Support for Yourself

In addition to finding support and treatment for your loved one, it’s important to find support for yourself. The recovery process is difficult for the whole community, and there are support systems for the support systems! 

When you reach out to your healthcare provider to find treatment for your loved one, ask about joining a family members’ support group. These spaces can give you support and validation of your experience. You can also call The Alliance’s helpline to talk to a licensed mental health professional about treatment options for your loved one and support groups for yourself. Take care of your own mental, physical, and emotional health. When you feel resourced, you’ll have a greater capacity to support your loved one.

Supporting a loved one with an eating disorder requires patience, understanding, and effective communication. By choosing your words thoughtfully, you can create a safe and supportive environment where they feel heard and validated. Our mission at The Alliance is to provide referrals and education to anyone suffering from an eating disorder and their families. For any questions, we can lend you guidance on how to best support your loved one’s recovery journey. Recovery is possible, and a solid support system plays an important role in helping someone heal.