4 ways to support a family member in eating disorder or disordered eating recovery.
I’ve had multiple people request a post on how to support loved ones in eating disorder recovery, so this post is overdue!
This post is for supporting those with all types of eating disorders: anorexia, EDNOS, orthorexia, diabulimia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia. And for supporting those in a variety of different body sizes.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.
Here we go:
1. Have awareness of your own behaviors with food, exercise and your body size. Take steps to move from a diet mentality to a non-diet mentality.
When it comes to eating disorders, the disease is not malnutrition, therefore food is not the cure. Eating disorders are a mental illness expressing itself in food behaviors. Even though food is not the root issue, there are particular mentalities around food and exercise that perpetuate destructive eating and food behaviors that are worth addressing here. There is a mentality someone can have where the ED thrives and a mentality someone can have where the ED can’t thrive. See the below…
One of the very best things a family member can do to support a person in ED recovery on the food front is to adopt a framework where disordered eating, exercise and body thoughts can not thrive. Recovery from an eating disorder is so tough because many of the disordered eating behaviors you engage in during an ED are normalized in our society. The majority of people I come across on a daily basis (outside of my practice) operate on the below spectrum around the “disordered eating” marker.
Disordered or dysfunctional eating and exercise behaviors don’t necessarily become an ED in everyone. Some may eliminate bread without impairing their ability to function in the world. But for someone with an active ED or a history of an ED, eliminating any food group or believing that certain foods are good or bad (you can read more about my thoughts on good vs. bad foods in #3 in this post) isn’t sending a recovery encouraging message to them.
It’s important to remember that we live in a society that encourages a person to maximize their physical health and physical appearance at the expense of being well. Society minimizes being healthy to being thin or eliminating sugar. I think it’s important to remember that being at a society-says-it’s-healthy weight does not necessarily equal a healthy state. Recovery from an eating disorder requires restoration of eating and movement patterns that promote being well regardless of the body size one ends up at.
Continuing to pine for weight loss while a loved one is going through ED recovery isn’t helping anyone recover from their eating disorder.* A focus on weight loss for those with EDs perpetuates the thoughts that drive behaviors. This work is tough. I get it. Most men and women don’t do the work they need to do to feel comfortable and confident in their bodies. A good place for loved one’s to start is to read Intuitive Eating, HAES, Body Respect, or to take my online course (until August 28th…for 15% off the course use coupon code: IMMAEAT).
2. Ask the person what they need from you.
Trying to read someone’s mind is typically not very effective. Instead of trying to guess how to support someone in ED recovery, ask them what they need from you and how you could support them. This can get tricky because those in ED recovery are not good at advocating for themselves and asking for support when they need it. So you may need to ask them frequently and make them give you a response.
3. Help the person feel good about the new way they are now taking care of themselves.
When you’re recovery from an ED…
It’s hard to not exercise. It’s hard to stop bingeing when you’ve taught yourself for years that bingeing is an effective way to calm yourself down. It’s hard to stop restricting when you’ve taught yourself for years that restricting is an effective way to calm yourself down. It’s hard to eat foods society deems as bad. It’s hard to let your body find its natural size, rather than trying to control your body size. It’s hard to go from having the identity of the “athletic, clean eater”, to the someone who isn’t allowed to exercise and has a food challenge to eat processed food for every snack that week.
Let them know that shifting from a diet to a non-diet mentality must be so hard when casual conversations with pretty much anyone are littered with diet talk that is egging them on right back to their eating disorder.
Recovery from an eating disorder is hard because one recovers into a world that is constantly encouraging them to go back to their eating disorder behaviors. In comparison, when you learn to manage panic attacks you don’t go back into a world that says please have panic attacks again.** You don’t recover to sunshine and rainbows, you recover to a world that is cluttered with everyone micromanaging their body size, self-diagnosing their food allergies, and thinking they can prevent every chronic disease if they just don’t eat ‘x’. The behaviors that they are being told are destructive to their mental and physical health (overexercise, run x miles so they can eat x, eliminate dairy or carbs) are the exact behaviors that when they look around everyone is doing.
That’s why you need epic CEDS (certified eating disorder specialist) therapists and CEDRDs (certified eating disordered registered dietitians) who can help you get to the root of why you have your eating disorder, teach you some incredible coping skills to help you cope in more effective ways and teach you how to eat again. The world is really noisy with diet chatter. It’s really freaking annoying, but you don’t have to let it trigger you into a destructive behavior.
4. Ask them to tell you what it’s like to be them.
Tell me what it’s like to have an ED. Explain it to me. What does it feel like? Then you just listen.
You’re not supposed to fix anything. Just try to understand what it feels like to live with a brain that is rampant with noisy ED thoughts. If the person with an eating disorder has a hard time describing their ED, I recommend this TED talk that can help a family member understand what an eating disorder can sound like. Start at 2:44 minutes and stop around the 6 minute mark.
For anyone open to sharing…
How have you asked your family / friends to support you in ED recovery?
Have you ever had a loved one do something creative and unique to support you in recovery? Any stories of friends going above and beyond to support you?
Are you currently supporting someone in ED recovery? How’s it going?
*i have no intention here of blaming a parent, friend or loved one for the development of one’s eating disorder. EDs develop due to a perfect storm of numerous biological factors (genetic predisposition for an ED), psychological factors (perfectionistic or impulsive personality types, and depressed/anxious mood states) and social factors (influence from family/friend, media, BLOGS, social media, etc.) all coming together at once.
**i’ve never had a panic attack and that statement is in no way to say that having panic attacks are easier than having an eating disorder. I was just trying to make a comparison. To any of my readers who struggle with panic attacks my intention was not to minimize your struggle. I’m sorry if it comes off that way and that was not my intention.