Yeah…Immaeatthat

Aug 24

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, HAESBody 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…

  1. How have you asked your family / friends to support you in ED recovery?

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

18 comments on “4 ways to support a family member in eating disorder or disordered eating recovery.”

  1. I love this, Kylie. As a person with anorexia your suggestions are just what I would want. I am incredibly lucky to have a mum and sister who aren’t engaged in the diet world. I can’t believe how much harder it would be if they were. Social media is crazy enough…..so thanks again. A wonderful resource.x

  2. Kylie, this is so so good, I wish everyone I know would read it. It’s so frustrating trying to recover while it seems like everyone around you is trying to lose weight and focused on stupid diets and hyper-body/food aware. Society is just not recovery friendly! These tips are great though, thank you <3 

  3. As someone who has gone through recovery from anorexia, all of these things are exactly what I needed when I was working on getting better. One really neat thing my sister did for me when I was going through recovery was create a little book for me that she completely filled up with positive quotes for me to read when I needed a pick-me up on the days I would feel frustrated with everything. Surrounding myself around a person like my sister who had a healthy relationship with food was definitely what I needed. I stayed away from the media as much as I could and tried to avoid the people I knew would make recovery harder for me (sometimes hard to do–like you said, there are so many people who have some form of disordered eating!) and that really helped make the journey easier. 

  4. In my ED recovery, one of the hardest things (and most empowering and rewarding) has been asking for support from my family. I finally realized it was easier for everyone if I told them exactly what I needed them to do, like refrain from making comments about food or discussing exercise with me. Eating disorders are scary and hard for those suffering and for their loved ones – by creating a roadmap for my family of does and don’ts, it helped them understand what they needed to do to support me. Everyone that loves you wants to help you, but sometimes they can be afraid to ask you what you need.

    Asking for help is scary, but finally being able to stand up for myself and ask for what I need in my life is one of the biggest gifts of my recovery process. 

  5. This is really good, Kylie. Yes, now that I am aware of diet mentality I hear and see it EVERYWHERE. I’m raising a little girl so I’m extra aware, cautious and momma bearish about messages, comments and images. Sometimes I think I’m the weird one because everyone else acts like it’s so normal. My work, sites like the ones you’ve mentioned and blogs like yours help me remember to feed myself well and often and trust. Xo

  6. I can definitely relate to the people in my life helping me in my recovery intentionally. One thing I can think about specifically is when my husband makes positive comments about my food choices when we go out to eat together or something. Previously when I would have always chosen salads or soups, now when I choose something different he will reassure me how happy he is that I am actually enjoying the meal with him. This has been very helpful, as it also reminds me how much my ED behaviors impacted him previously, as well.

  7. After 15 years of dieting, disordered eating, food and body image obsession, I found the (amazing) world of body acceptance, HAES, and intuitive eating. It changed everything, was a literal rescue. My mental and physical health is returning to balance(it’s taken a couple of years) and I feel like I’m living a real life for the first time.
    The arena of biggest challenge remains the family culture I come from, and the family culture I married into. At a recent family gathering, my sister in law was in the kitchen sobbing. My MIL(her mom) and a couple of cousins came in to find out what was going on- she poured her heart out about the hard time she was going through, working insane hours as an ICU nurse, single parenting while her husband is deployed, getting almost no sleep, and was basically breaking under all the pressure.
    MIL took her by the shoulders, looked her in the eye and gleefully said “And you are looking sooo skinny! Stress is the best diet there is! Be Happy!”
    I was literally speechless; even more so when immediately the conversation turned not to how to see, how to help, how to support and understand….but how to DIET and get SKINNY. I feel physically ill when I think about how deeply the harm is entrenched, and it’s ever more apparent how vital this education is for every person, not just the ones struggling.
    That kitchen episode was triggering, even after all the work I’ve done–my body size could never be referred to as skinny–and it made me aware that I am still surreptitiously judged by my relatives because of my failure to fit into the family body ideals.
    The cycle stops with me.

  8. This is great Kylie, I sent the link to my husband and told him that he was doing everything he”should” be to help me. He’s amazing and my only true confidante. One of the sweetest things that he does for me as I try to recover is leave little post-it notes around the house for me to see in places where I need some strength, like the scale (the note says: you’re beautiful just as you are, you don’t need to see this), or on a jar of nut butter (which I have no control over and end up with MASSIVE guilt, the note says: this nut butter is saving your life and should be enjoyed), or even on our “snack” cupboard which I struggle with (note says: snacking is not bad and should be encouraged, eat what you’re craving and enjoy it). He even leaves little notes in random places like my closet which say that I’m beautiful or that his voice is the only one I need to listen to. Having him support me in this way has been SO amazing and really helped strengthen our relationship in this fight against my eating disordered behaviors!

  9. My sister is an intuitive eater, so throughout my anorexia recovery she has been a ‘fear food buddy’ – we would go out to a restaurant together and hold me accountable to find something I wanted to eat that I was anxious about instead of engaging in EDBs. Having someone that I could be really honest with about the anxiety I would feel during the experience was very helpful.

  10. This post is amazing, and I wish people talked about this more. Though I’ve never had a full-blown eating disorder, I was very much deep in disordered eating. The problem was I kept it all to myself, so the only people who knew something was wrong were my immediate family members. Though they did a great job with avoiding diet mentality type conversation (my family is some of the most normal eaters I’ve ever come across), they didn’t really try to understand where I was coming from, from a mental standpoint. So they’d say, “just eat this.” Or, “why can’t you just have more cake?” It was frustrating because I just felt misunderstood and unheard. So your advice to ask them to tell you what it feels like in their mind is SPOT ON.

  11. I love this post! I think one of the worst ways to ‘support’ someone while recovering is to tell them how good they look now that they’ve gained weight….or praise them for ordering pasta instead of a salad. Don’t draw attention to these kinds of healthy decisions because it will probably make them more self-conscious about them. I had a couple people tell me how much healthier I look with a little more weight and all I could think was “OMG! You can tell I’ve gained weight?!?!?”

  12. I loved reading this and totally agree with it. As someone that has gone through recovery from anorexia, one of the hardest situations for me was when people would ask me for diet advice. I remember women asking me how they can lose more weight and have more self control like me. I hated this and loved it at the same time. It really fed my ED, because I saw how people accepted that side of me. One time some girls were talking about their diet right in front of me, and that just made me want to diet with them even though my goal was to be doing the opposite. I am grateful that I now have the courage to stand up for myself in those times, and confidently tell them that what they are doing is only harming themselves.

  13. Kylie – THANK YOU for this post!! Having successfully recovered from an eating disorder, I find that I’m constantly asked for advice about how others can helped their loved ones. I find that I’m always at a loss – I know what I wanted and needed, but how am I to know the specifics of what a stranger might want or need? This is such a brilliant, succinct resource of information to be able to share in these cases. <3

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  15. Thanks for all the motivational advice to support my sister in her time of need. She is very hard on herself and I feel she might need some professional help because I’m noticing really bad habits with eating. That is such great advice to make sure she knows I’m there for her and ask what she needs from me specifically.

    • Glad this can help you support her, Sandra! I’m a big fan of professional help. It can be hard to listen to family even if they really do know / want what is best for you. Best of luck <3

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