Eating disorders are a confusing beast. Despite how common they are â€” it’s estimated that at least 30 million people in the United States alone struggle with one â€” thereâ€™s still a lot of stigma associated with EDs. In part, that’s because thereâ€™s so much about them most people simply don’t understand.
I was diagnosed with anorexia during my senior year of college. In the years that have passed since then, I have remained active in my recovery â€” because the thing about eating disorder recovery is that it is constantly ongoing. It is something I will always deal with, in some way, whether that means trying to quiet the â€œeating disorder voiceâ€ that berates me for eating a full meal or attempting forget the catalog of calorie counts I memorized at the height of my ED.
During the worst days of my anorexia, I was constantly surprised by insensitive and ignorant comments from friends, family members, and even medical professionals. It turns out that many people just donâ€™t know what to say to someone who is in the throes of an eating disorder or recovering from one. Many of the comments I heard were well-intentioned, and I recognized that people meant them as compliments or support, but they could nonetheless throw me into a tailspin. Ahead, eleven things you should avoid saying to someone who is dealing with anorexia (or any other eating disorder) â€” and what to say instead.
1. â€You look great! Have you lost weight?â€
Our society has wired us to comment on weight loss as a good thing â€” something to be congratulated on. To someone with an eating disorder, however, this “compliment” can be extremely dangerous. For one, it sends the message that the results of disordered eating are positive, never mind what it took to get them. Itâ€™s also important to remember that people who are actively eating disordered often donâ€™t feel good about their bodies. At the height of my anorexia, there was never a moment when I could look in the mirror and think, â€œIâ€™m done, Iâ€™ve lost enough weight now.â€ I always wanted to lose more, and someone telling me I looked “great” would often trigger me to start planning an even lower â€œgoal weightâ€ than before.
What you could say instead: “I love the way you did your hair today.” Itâ€™s a good idea to avoid commenting on someoneâ€™s body. If you want to compliment them, choose a feature that has nothing to do with their physique. Alternately, ask them how they’re feeling and bypass their appearance altogether.
2. “Want to split this granola bar? There’s only X amount of calories in it!”
Numbers talk can be really harmful for many people who are eating disordered, as well as those who are in recovery. To this day, I canâ€™t walk into Starbucks without feeling a rush of anxiety when I see the menu with all of the calorie counts on it. You may think youâ€™re being helpful with a statement like this, but you may really be fueling the impulses behind many people’s eating disorders. When I was struggling with anorexia the most, it got to a point where 100 calories for one meal felt like too much, so to hear any talk of numbers or digits would send me into full panic mode.
What you could say instead: â€œI feel like getting a snack â€” what are you in the mood for?â€ Itâ€™s understandable to want to suggest that your friend eat something, but instead of directly offering them a number, why not ask what they feel like eating? Asking them this question instead gives them multiple ways to answer, and youâ€™re speaking to the person, not the eating disorder.
3. â€œI wish I had your self-control.â€
The problem with this type of statement is that it’s based on the myth that disordered eating is a choice or a â€œdiet.â€ Itâ€™s essential for other people to understand that an eating disorder is not a lifestyle â€” it’s a mental illness. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness â€” making it even more dangerous to think of eating disorders as something a person could control and “switch off” if only they wanted to.
An eating disorder is not a lifestyle â€” it’s a mental illness.
What you could say instead: “So, seen any good movies lately?” The National Eating Disorder Association encourages friends and family to avoid discussions that surround eating habits, whether theirs or your own. If youâ€™re eating with someone with an eating disorder, try talking about something that has nothing to do with food to help ease any anxiety they may have.
4. â€œIs that all youâ€™re eating?â€
People who ask this question usually do it without thinking; itâ€™s a genuine reaction to seeing someone put very little on their plate. In college, I used to expect this inquiry any time I ate dinner with someone outside my circle of friends. In fact, I didnâ€™t just hear it from my classmates, but also from dining hall employees â€” theyâ€™d raise their eyebrows at my plate of carrot sticks and scoop of hummus and ask, “That’s all youâ€™re getting?”
Questions like this shame the person with an eating disorder, calling attention to something that may already be causing them embarrassment. What was I supposed to say to those questions? â€œOh, no, actually thereâ€™s an invisible sandwich here too?â€ When you ask this question, youâ€™re putting the person with an eating disorder in a super uncomfortable position.
What you could say instead: “It sure was hot out there today, wasn’t it?” Seriously, don’t say anything about people’s food intake during meal time. Itâ€™s important to remember that eating disorders cause people to think differently about food, so what might seem like a harmless question could cause a lot of anxiety. Talk about literally anything else â€” the weather, a movie, the latest celebrity gossip. If you are concerned, talk to them later, away from food. Share your observations in a non-judgmental manner and ask how they’ve been feeling.
5. â€œYou don’t look like you have an eating disorder.â€
Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. While certain illnesses are more visible than others (anorexia, for example, is diagnostically marked by a significantly low body weight), itâ€™s important to remember that EDs are, first and foremost, mental illnesses. Sometimes you can see physical symptoms, and sometimes you canâ€™t. Furthermore, people with EDs might interpret this statement as “Youâ€™re not thin enough,” which can trigger dangerous behavior.
What you could say instead: “I care about you, and I’m here to help in any way I can.” Rather than invalidating someone’s experiences, offer your support and friendship.
6. â€Do you have any weight loss advice?â€
A few weeks before I went into recovery, a friend of mine approached me for “tips” on restricting. “How did you do it?” she asked. “Do you have any strategies that you can share?”
In retrospect, this was a totally absurd request. Would you ask someone with the flu to “teach” you how to get the flu? Of course not, so why would you try to coerce “tips” from someone with a mental illness? Again, eating disorders are not a diet or something people choose to have. By asking questions like these, you undermine the seriousness of the disorder itself.
What you could say instead: “Hey, your makeup looks amazing today â€” got any tips for liquid eyeliner?” You may feel like itâ€™s okay to talk about yourself, but comments about your own weight or body might be triggering. Instead, ask the person for advice on something else â€”Â makeup tips, help with a project, advice on a relationship issue. Itâ€™s helpful to remind them that they have a lot to offer, and aren’t defined by their ED.
7. â€œYouâ€™re so thin! Eat a hamburger!â€
Right after graduation, I worked at a professional theater company in Wisconsin. On my very first day, I visited the costume shop to be measured for a production of Grease. While I was trying on Pink Lady jackets, the costumer rolled her eyes, annoyed by the fact that she had to do alterations for me. “Can you just eat a hamburger instead?” she quipped as I left. I remember thinking, â€œNo, I canâ€™t â€˜just eat a hamburger,â€™ because it will give me literally a ton of anxiety, and screw you for even asking that question.â€
Itâ€™s important to remember that people with eating disorders often develop â€œsafe foodsâ€ and â€œfear foodsâ€. Eating “fear foods” can produce intense anxiety for those with EDs, and to make light of that is to severely misunderstand what they’re going through. Furthermore, reversing the effects of eating disorder weight loss is not as simple as â€œeating a hamburger.â€ Recovery often involves an entire re-learning of how to approach eating.
Recovery often involves an entire re-learning of how to approach eating
What you could say instead: “Hey, do you think we can talk sometime?” If you notice a friend looks very thin, it is certainly a good idea to talk to them about it. You donâ€™t want to ignore the issue entirely, because that could be dangerous too. However, itâ€™s important to find the right time and place to broach the subject in a serious way, rather than making an off-the-cuff remark that could be offensive and hurtful.
8. â€œYou look so healthy.â€
This one is really, really tricky. People said this to me all the time during my recovery, and I know they were just trying to be caring. But because my â€œeating disorder voiceâ€ was still there (and still is today), I automatically interpreted â€œhealthyâ€ as â€œheavier.â€ And while I knew, objectively, that I was gaining weight â€” and that I needed to â€” it was hard to be reminded of it. Hearing the word â€œhealthyâ€ can be really difficult for people in recovery, and it can trigger dangerous habits.
What you could say instead: “I’m proud of you.” If you know someone is in recovery and making progress, try letting them know how happy you are without talking about their body. Avoid commenting on any weight gain you see, even if youâ€™re happy to notice it. Focus on the emotional piece of the puzzle, and praise your friend for taking action in their recovery.
9. â€œYouâ€™re so lucky that you can wear pretty much anything.â€
Shopping is a really weird experience for people with eating disorders: it can feel alternately ecstatic and devastating. For me, I loved going shopping when my anorexia began to develop â€” not even to purchase things, but to try on clothes and see the sizes decrease every week. But by the time my eating disorder had spiraled into more dangerous territory, I hated shopping. Nothing fit, and even when I was trying on the smallest sizes, I still hated what I saw in the mirror. At one of my lowest points, I had to buy a black collared shirt for a waitressing job and ended up having to get something from the kidsâ€™ department at Target. So, yeah, â€œlucky?â€ I donâ€™t think so.
What you could say instead: “That color looks great on you.” If you are shopping with a friend who has an eating disorder, try focusing on the clothing itself rather than their body. Comments like this one, or â€œYou can totally pull off that style,â€ are much safer than anything that insinuates their disease is â€œlucky.â€
10. “Being super-skinny isn’t attractive anyway.”
There’s a misconception that people with eating disorders try to lose weight just because they’re vain, which is entirely untrue. A lot of times disordered eating isn’t about looks at all, but rather the emotions that encourage the behavior. I felt just as bad about my appearance at my lowest weight as I did when I was at a “normal” weight. It was never about what I saw in the mirror; it was always about how I felt inside.
It was never about what I saw in the mirror; it was always about how I felt inside
What you could say instead: “I wish everyone had a great sense of humor like you!” Try to avoid talking about body sizes and beauty in general. Discussion surrounding thinness isn’t productive when speaking with someone who has an eating disorder, even if you’re trying to be helpful. Instead, focus on positive qualities that have nothing to do with someone’s outward appearance.
11. â€œWhy can’t you just eat like a normal person?â€
Itâ€™s understandable for loved ones to be frustrated and scared when someone they care about is exhibiting signs of an eating disorder. But this is just not a productive statement, and speaking as someone who had those words yelled in her face by a boyfriend, I can attest to that. First of all, can we just banish the word â€œnormalâ€ from any conversation surrounding mental health altogether? My eating disorder does not make me â€œabnormalâ€ â€” itâ€™s simply a condition I have. Moreover, itâ€™s crucial to remember that eating disorders are complex and multi-layered. A person could eat a full meal and still be at war with their eating disorder in their mind. What we see on the outside is not always reflected on the inside.
What you could say instead: “I’m worried.” Itâ€™s okay to communicate that you are worried about or scared for your friend or loved one. But instead of being accusatory, try framing your emotions with â€œIâ€ statements, like â€œIâ€™m concerned about you.â€ Most importantly, listen. Make sure that the person knows that youâ€™re there for them and that you wonâ€™t give up on them. To the best of your ability, leave anger out of it, and focus on being a source of support. At the end of the day, thatâ€™s the best you can do.
If you are currently struggling, there is help available and you are not alone. For treatment options, visit NEDA or contact NEDAâ€™s Live Helpline at (800) 931-2237. They’re available from Monday through Thursday, 9 am to 9 pm (EST), and on Friday, 9 am to 5 pm (EST). If you’re currently in a crisis, you can text NEDA to 741741 â€” this is available 24 hours a day/seven days a week.