Eating disorders are common—shockingly so. Whether you’ve noticed a change in a loved one’s eating patterns or body shape or you’ve developed some concerning patterns in your own relationship with food, it can be hard to know how to handle the situation. Despite the fact that at least 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, we’re not well equipped to talk about it.
Whether you want to offer help to a family member or friend or ask for help yourself, having an open, honest conversation about eating disorders can be an incredibly delicate situation. Talking honestly about bodies (and their connection to weight and food) is difficult for many men and women. Because of this, it’s hard to find the right words to talk about what’s going on. If you’re trying to offer help, you might worry about offending your loved one or overstepping your bounds. If you need help yourself, you might be afraid of judgement, even from those who love you desperately.
That being said, having tough conversations can save lives. Talking openly about eating disorders has been shown to help people connect with treatment and give them the courage to seek professional help.
The theme of the National Eating Disorders Association’s 2018 awareness week was “Let’s Get Real.” Part of that means having the difficult conversations we would rather shy away from. Here’s how to get started:
How to Offer Help
Watching a friend struggle with an eating disorder can leave you feeling helpless. Even when you feel ready to voice your concerns, it’s often difficult to know where to begin. The National Eating Disorders Association recommends doing your research first so that you understand a bit more about eating disorders. Once you’re armed with information, rehearse what you want to say to your loved one. Then find a calm, private time and space to have the conversation.
Once you’re talking, use “I” statements so that your loved one doesn’t feel attacked or blamed. A good approach is to say “I am worried about you because…” and then list a few facts (like, “I have noticed you’re eating a lot less at meals,” or “I have seen lots of wrappers in the trash, and I’m concerned you may be binging”). Focusing on the facts and presenting them from your perspective will make the conversation feel less threatening; the hope is that they’ll be more receptive to hearing what you have to say when it’s not framed as a judgment or accusation.
It’s important to let your friend know that you’re there to support them. But support isn’t simple. Avoid giving basic solutions like, “You just need to eat more.” This can make your loved one feel like you don’t understand the complexity of their experience (because it’s so much more than “just eat more”).
For people with eating disorders, changing behaviors is central to recovery but it’s no easy feat, and it’s just one part of effective treatment. Because of this, it’s also a good idea to encourage your loved one to get professional help and to talk about your concerns with another trusted person who can provide additional support for your loved one.
Asking for Help
Asking for help with an eating disorder is even scarier than trying to help a friend. After all, admitting that you have a problem can be terrifying, and making yourself vulnerable in front of friends and family is daunting. However, ultimately reaching out is a great way to get support.
Before talking, consider what you hope to get from your friend or loved one. Are you looking for their support and guidance, or do you want them to just hear your experience? Once you know what your motivation is for sharing, let that guide the conversation. Eating Disorder Hope has a great guide to having this talk in the way that is most comfortable for you.
Knowing whether you (or your loved one) has slipped into disordered eating can be tricky since the process is gradual for many people. This screening tool created by the National Eating Disorders Association can help you know whether you have a problem. Consider taking it yourself or having your loved one take it to get an initial unbiased read on your habits or intuition.
Remember, eating disorders are nothing to be ashamed of. They are medical conditions that require professional treatment. With the right support and intervention, living in recovery is possible; talking about it is the first step to getting there.