10 Things not to say to someone Suffering from an Eating Disorder.

I asked a few people, who all suffer from different types of Eating Disorders, what things are often said by people which can be triggering or upsetting. These are the things they wished they could share. This list is composed of some of their views and mine.

  1. ‘You look so much better’ – This is a common one and one which I have heard millions of times before. If someone is struggling with an Eating Disorder and has perhaps gained some weight, hearing that they ‘look better’ often makes them feel worse. Remember, Eating Disorders are Mental Illnesses with physical side effects. So actually being told this can often make sufferers feel that people do not realise how much they are still struggling internally as physically they look OK. Rationally we should perceive ‘you look better’ or ‘you are doing well’ as a complement but Eating Disorders are not rational. We use our bodies to physically display the turmoil that is inside us. And when people cannot recognise that, it can often trigger sufferers to relapse or simply make recovery so much harder.
  2. ‘But you eat…you can’t have an Eating Disorder if you eat?’ – This is so wrong on so many levels. Not least because the vast majority of Eating Disorders are not even categorised by restriction. In regard to Anorexia Nervosa – the majority do eat!! The criteria for a diagnosis of AN does not have a set amount of calories that a sufferer must be consuming under. Yes, there is restriction to varying degrees, but not always. Also people may be eating because they have made the incredibly brave choice to recover. This does not mean that they no longer have an Eating Disorder. It means they are fighting a daily battle. One which I would not wish on anyone. Furthermore, other Eating Disorders are characterised by the consumption of vast quantities of food and the use of specific methods to get rid of that food in an unhealthy manner. So yes. You can have an Eating Disorder and still eat.
  3. ‘You must be better because you’re healthy now’ – Any sufferer will tell you that fighting an Eating Disorder full on is the hardest thing that they have ever done. It does not take days off. Not at Christmas, Birthdays, Halloween or New Year. A person does not become recovered when weight restoration is achieved. It takes years to fully recover. And weight restoration is only a small part of it. And in Bulimia Nervosa, and other Eating Disorders, it may not play a part at all. You cannot judge a book by its cover. You cannot judge how much a person is struggling with an Eating Disorder simply by looking at them. It is a Mental Illness, and you cannot see a ‘healthy’ mind.
  4. ‘You don’t look like you have an Eating Disorder’ – I have often had this said to me. And it hurts. A lot. How should I look to you? There is no set way anyone with an Eating Disorder should look. You can be ANY weight and have an Eating Disorder. The idea that sufferers should be emaciated and look ill is simply a common misconception. Just as you don’t ‘look’ like you have diabetes or epilepsy – you don’t have to ‘look’ like you have an Eating Disorder to be suffering. Eating Disorders are NOT characterised solely on weight, there is a whole mental aspect to Eating Disorders that is so often forgotten and overlooked.
  5. ‘So it’s like an extreme diet?’ – No its not I’m afraid. It’s not a diet gone wrong. It’s not a diet gone too far. It’s not even a diet. It’s not a case of aspiring to skinny models in the media or stick thin celebrities. Diet culture and living in a society obsessed with weight loss does not HELP but it is by no means the cause nor the driving force behind Eating Disorders.
  6. ‘Why can’t you just snap out of it? Why can’t you just eat?’ – Oh how we wish it was that simple. Oh how I wish it was a case that we didn’t physically KNOW how to put food in our mouths and chew and swallow and taste. But just like you cannot snap out of having a broken leg we cannot just snap out of an Eating Disorder. A leg will break and, given time, it will heal. Sometimes perfectly and sometimes enough for it to function again. It is the same with Eating Disorders. Some people recover completely, but most get to the point where they can manage the condition and live a relatively normal life. So no. Sorry. We cannot just ‘snap out of it’.
  7. ‘Just eat normally, then you’ll be fine’ – Unfortunately it does not work like that. Normal eating becomes a foreign concept. It is like having to learn to walk again; you can see everyone else doing it but cannot understand where to begin. The brain creates new rules, rituals and ideas surrounding food which are unhealthy, but difficult to let go of. True recovery can only come from unlearning all the unhelpful beliefs surrounding food that have been formed. So no, sadly, it is not as simple as just ‘eating normally’.
  8. ‘If you think you’re fat, what do you think I am?’ – Body Dysmorphia is a very real condition that often coincides with Eating Disorders. The suffer has an inability to see themselves as they truly are but this does NOT impact their ability to see others the way they truely are.
  9. ‘I think I should go on a diet, what do you think?’ – If you know someone who has an Eating Disorder please try and refrain from any talk of diets, weight loss, exercise, measurements or numbers. We don’t want to know about your latest fad diet or how you lost a stone in a day, ran 800 miles, weigh x amount and have avoided carbs since 2005. It is hard enough trying to eat well in a society obsessed with diets and the latest exercise fad without hearing it all from family and friends.
  10. ‘Can you give me tips for weight loss’ – No I won’t I’m afraid. If you want to lose weight unhealthily I’ll provide a list of things to expect:
  • Dry hair, skin and nails that peel.
  • Insomnia
  • Cramping in muscles and muscle loss
  • Hair that falls out
  • Low blood pressure/ slow heart rate
  • Osteoporosis
  • Fainting or just generally feeling weak
  • Feeling cold ALL THE TIME
  • Hair growth all over as your body desperately tries to keep itself warm
  • Loss of periods
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Poor concentration

Eating Disorders are not glamorous and they are not beautiful. It is painful. It is real. They push our bodies to the very limit and sometimes they cause irreversible damage. They can even result in death.

I hope this has been helpful, both to non- sufferers to gain a better insight into Eating Disorders, and to sufferers who feel frustrated when these things have been said to them. I hope I have managed to explain more about how Eating Disorders really are for people and I hope this helps people who know someone who is suffering but are unsure of the things they should/should not say.

Thank you so much for reading