What You Shouldn't Say to Someone With an Eating Disorder

March 13th 2016

Even though millions of people in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives, relatives and loved ones of victims often struggle to support them and ask the right questions. If you want to help those with eating disorders overcome their issues, it is important to approach them in a thoughtful, non-judgmental way and recognize that people with eating disorders suffer from a form of mental illness. This is significant because many incorrectly assume eating disorders are all about restrictive diets and not health issues.

If you love someone with an eating disorder, here are a few things to avoid saying to them, as well as suggestions on how to interact with them in a constructive, loving, and helpful way.

1. "You look so healthy."

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Marya Hornbacher, the author of "Wasted," a highly acclaimed memoir about struggling with eating disorders, told ATTN: over the phone that hearing the comment "you look so healthy" can be challenging for someone in recovery, because eating disorders specifically make people want to look unhealthy.

"With eating disorders, you're trying to look unhealthy," Hornbacher told ATTN:. "So when you start getting better, you start looking healthier, of course, and when people tell you that you're looking healthier, [your eating disorder] says you're not doing a good job."

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders (ANAD) backs this point up as well.

"People with eating disorders may equate 'looking healthy' with 'looking fat,' and this comment could be upsetting for them. Furthermore, weight gain doesn’t always imply that they are recovered or 'better,'" ANAD states on its website. "Full recovery takes quite some time, so even if they look recovered, they may still be struggling mentally or emotionally. They may actually need additional support during this time as they adjust to the changes in their body and behavior."

The key, Hornbacher said, is to focus less on the appearance and ask how the person is doing in his/her life.

"When you're talking to someone who has a disordered perception of his or her appearance anyway, making your remark on their appearance probably isn't as helpful as saying something like, 'How are you doing? How is your recovery?'" she said.

2. "You look fine to me."

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Once again, any comment that focuses on a victim's appearance can be harmful because they already have a disordered view of themselves. Hearing that they look "fine" can also stir up trouble because they're absolutely not fine inside.

The best way to approach this, Hornbacher said, is to stress things about the person that don't have to do with their looks, body, and eating.

"Remind them of things that they may have forgotten about themselves," Hornbacher said. "'Hows the drawing going? Hows the knitting? Hows your younger brother?' Anything to re-engage them in their lives is helpful. Re-engaging them in their appearance is not helpful."

3. "Just stop being sick."

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Some people think eating disorders victims can merely "snap out of it" and choose to eat, but this disregards the fact that eating disorders are the deadliest form of mental illness and that you can't just tell someone to think their way into becoming healthy again.

"If I say to you, 'I've been trying to quit drinking for the last five years, but lately I've been drinking a lot,' what do you say to me?" Hornbacher said. "Approach it as the addiction, approach it as the supportive friend, and use your best judgment about how much you want to engage. People respond to being cared about and supported, but addictions don't go away because you told them to."

It's also good to "stop tiptoeing" around people with eating disorders.

"They may get triggered, they live in the world, they're going to have to deal with triggers hitting them in the face the minute they walk out the door," Hornbacher said. "You don't have to coddle them. They're probably not children. Treat them as you'd treat a friend with any addiction. Being empathetic rather than telling them what to do [is helpful]."

4. "You ate a lot today!"

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ANAD's website warns that comments like these can make people with eating disorders feel self-conscious because of their battles with food.

"People with eating disorders are often self-conscious about their food choices," ANAD's website states. "Don’t shame them for eating something you consider 'unhealthy,' as they may already have reservations about eating these foods as part of their treatment plan."

5. "I could never have an eating disorder because I love food too much."

This is another remark that disregards the fact that eating disorders are a form of mental illness. People with eating disorders aren't sacrificing their love for food to be thin. They are suffering from a mental illness that makes them fixate on food.

"Eating disorders are not about willpower, they are serious mental illnesses," ANAD states.

It is dangerous to frame eating disorders like they're about willpower, as they're mental illnesses that need treatment.

If you are suffering from an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

RELATED: Science Explains Why Anorexia Is So Tough to Cure

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