As the holiday season is upon us, many clients with eating disorders express fear and anticipation about celebrating these occasions that are centered on food and family. During such moments, I encourage clients to reach out to safe, supportive individuals who may be more sensitive to their recovery. However, I have realized that due to the limited understanding of eating disorders and what they really entail, many individuals, although they have good intentions, may not know how to appropriately support someone who is struggling with these concerns. For individuals with loved ones who struggle with an eating disorder, here are some ways you can offer them support during the holidays:
Refrain from commenting on their appearance – Individuals with eating disorders are hyper-focused on their body image. Whether they are binge eating, restricting, purging, or engaging in other compensatory behaviors, they are prone to weight fluctuations that may or may not be visible to others. For someone who is so preoccupied with their body, hearing comments about their appearance, whether they are positive (i.e. “You’ve lost weight and it looks great!”) or negative (i.e. “You’ve gotten chubbier since the last time I saw you”) can send them into a downward spiral of negative thoughts, painful feelings, and eating disorder behaviors. Although your comment may seem minor and superficial, or even complimentary, the recipient may perceive it in a distorted way and latch onto it as it reinforces some of their deepest negative beliefs about themselves. Instead of pointing out an aspect of this person’s physical appearance, try commenting on some of their positive internal characteristics: “You are so easy to talk to” or “You have so much passion for your work.”
Avoid diet talk and body shaming – As an individual with an eating disorder tries to get better, being a part of a culture that is focused on dieting and body shaming can be extremely distressing. Although you can’t control this culture, you can change the way you talk about food and body image. To support someone with an eating disorder, avoid labeling any food or food group as “good” or “bad” or commenting on its caloric value. Individuals with eating disorders tend to assign these labels to foods, which keeps them stuck in a challenging relationship with eating and a cycle of shame surrounding their food choices and body image. Avoid commenting on how others or you might interact with food (i.e. statements such as “Wow, you barely eat any carbs!”). Be mindful of sending any messages that might imply that a certain body type or size is better than another (i.e. “I really need to lose weight for my vacation.”) This also means being mindful of how you talk about your own body and appearance. By helping to create a body positive and food-inclusive atmosphere, you are demonstrating support of someone’s recovery.
Ask them what they need from you – As much as you want your loved one to feel better and progress in their recovery, you cannot cure them of their disorder, nor are you responsible to do so. However, you can offer support in a way that is comfortable for the individual. Instead of giving advice, ask your loved one what type of specific support they may need that you can offer them. If they have trouble articulating this, be patient and let them know that you are there to support them. Refrain from giving advice regarding eating or exercise that you think may be helpful. Eating disorder behaviors around food, exercise, and body image are symptoms of deeper concerns. Thus, suggesting various diets or exercise plans will not help the individual recover, but may only trigger them more.
Bio: Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral student and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides therapy in individual and group settings to adults and adolescents with eating disorders and body image concerns. Bahar has experience mentoring and facilitating support groups for individuals seeking a more peaceful relationship with food, and also guides client families in how to support their recovery. Book a FREE CONSULT with Bahar today!