What to Say When Your Loved One Has An Eating Disorder

When someone you love is ill, it can be stressful and scary. But when their illness is self-inflicted, stress and fear can quickly morph into frustration. Below, Certified Eating Disorder Specialist from Ocean Breeze Recovery Harriet Beitscher Campbell, LSCW, CEDS offers insight on how to identify an eating disorder, how to approach your loved one and what to avoid.

How to tell if a Loved One Has an Eating Disorder

There is no single sign of an eating disorder, notes Beitscher Campbell. Each disorder—from binge eating to body dysmorphic disorder—has its own signs, and each individual will operate differently.

“If a loved one is obese or struggling with compulsive eating, also known as Binge Eating Disorder, it is common to see weight fluctuation,” Beitscher Campbell says, typically due to yo-yo diets. “If you find food wrappers or boxes in closets, under the bed or in cars, you know your loved is ‘sneak eating.’ If they show signs of shakiness and irritability, they could be skipping meals—breakfast is common.”

Beitscher Campbell offers the following symptoms as a signal for an Bulimia: Going to the restroom directly after meals; increased dental problems (cavities); increased heart burn; callouses on knuckles; “chipmunk cheeks” (bloated face); broken blood vessels in the eye due to self-induced vomiting; restaurant avoidance.

Anorexia Nervosa, on the other hand, has symptoms such as hair loss, menstrual cycle cessation, weight loss, food rituals such as cutting food into minuscule pieces, constant dizziness or lightheadedness and obsessive exercising.

Because eating disorders differ greatly between individuals, it’s common that your friend or family member could have a combination disorder or a disorder that doesn’t fall into another category. Perhaps they move between binging and severe restriction, or exercise excessively and sneak eating. These disorders, labeled Eating Disorder Otherwise Not Specified (EDNOS), are still dangerous and need to be addressed.

Eating disorders can be much more dangerous than they initially appear. It’s not just about being under or overweight. Long-term abuse can lead to diabetes, weakening of bones, heart failure, auto-immune disorders and more.

It’s important to keep in mind that your friend or family member’s issue with foods stems from a deeper problem. Similar to drug addiction, drugs are only a symptom, explains Beitscher Campbell. There are usually other underlying issues, such as feelings of shame, depression, anxiety and rage.

“People will ‘eat at people’ when they are angry,” says Beitscher Campbell.

How to Approach Them

If you suspect your loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, approaching them can be difficult. They may not be open to assistance or willing to talk. The number one thing you can do, according to Beitscher Campbell, is approach them without judgement and focus on how much you care for them.

You can begin by simply saying “I love you, this is not a judgement,” and continue to share the signs you’ve witnessed and ask if they’ve considered seeing a doctor. The worst thing you can do is accuse or alienate, so make sure to show support and encouragement, no matter how hard it is.

“People that sneak, binge eat or purge often feel shame,” says Beitscher Campbell. Eating disorders are not about willpower. They’re a genuine disease.

“If a loved one has cancer, think how they would need empathy, supportive understanding and love,” says Beitscher Campbell. “The same goes for a loved one with an eating disorder.”

How Can You Help?

Now that you’ve approached them, how can you help? If you can, encourage your loved one to see a doctor, where lab work can show signs of specific eating disorders and the doctor can then refer them to a Certified Eating Disorders Specialist or Certified Eating Disorders Nutritionist.

Therapy is also a very effective option to suggest. If your loved one is a family member, family therapy can be extremely beneficial, especially if the eating disorder is impacting the entire family unit.

If your loved one refuses to see a doctor or mental health professional, remind them you’re always there to talk and suggest a support group either online or in-person. Beitscher Campbell recommends Overeaters Anonymous (OA), Anorexic Bulimic Anonymous (ABA), HOW meetings or Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA).

What to Avoid

Since it’s imperative to approach your loved one with genuine support, there are several things Beitscher Campbell suggests to avoid.

Giving unwarranted advice, telling the overweight person they need to lose weight or telling the underweight person they need to gain weight, should all be avoided. If you’re a parent, don’t control your child’s food intake, force them to eat or lock up the fridge. These could easily trigger a negative response or lead to rebellion.

It’s also important to pay attention to how you’re speaking about your loved one’s physical person.

Beitscher Campbell explains that if someone suffers from bulimia or anorexia and gains weight, telling them they look “healthy” could backfire, no matter how encouraging you’re trying to be. Eating disorders often result in a distorted perception of self.

“If you say, ‘You look so healthy’ they could interpret that as you calling them ‘fat,’” says Beitscher Campbell.

If your loved one gets defensive, Beitscher Campbell stresses how important it is to honor and respect their space and the message they are giving you. “They might not be ready to get the help then, but planting a seed is very important.”

While supporting your loved one, don’t forget to support yourself. O-Anon, Nar-Anon, Al-Anon or Co-Dependency Anonymous offer meetings for family members of loved ones with addictions, including food addictions, suggests Beitscher Campbell. These groups teach how to focus on yourself while helping your loved one get the help they need.

“Food is the most legal drug in the world,” says Beitscher Campbell. There is no way for you to change that. But you can offer endless support, understanding and compassion.

51 comments

Elisa F
Elisa F1 years ago

Thanks for the great article.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Ricky T.
Ricky T2 years ago

Assure them they're not alone...assure them that you know it's not attention seeking that many wrongly assume, it is a mental health issue. Help iron out the root cause, and accompany them getting the right help.

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Peggy B.
Peggy B2 years ago

So sad.

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j sian J.
j sian J2 years ago

There is an anorexic woman, she could be any age between 30 and 60, she's so emaciated, she goes to my gym, where she exercises obsessively for hours, in the last month she's lost even more weight. The spinning monitor did suggest to her that she shouldn't be doing back to back spinning classes, but his suggestions fell on deaf ears. I had anorexia in my teens but I really don't know what to say to this woman, she is clearly very sick but she thinks she's fantastic. It also worries me that she is a secondary school teacher, what kind of example is she giving to her adolescent students??

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Danuta Watola
Danuta W2 years ago

Thanks for sharing

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Doris F.
Doris F2 years ago

thank you for information

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Teresa Antela
Teresa Antela2 years ago

Thanks

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Nicola F.
Nicola F2 years ago

Thanks.

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