How to Support Loved Ones Who Are Struggling with Food and Body Image
Haley Goodrich, RD, LDN
The eating disorder brain is something that can seem almost impossible to understand if you have never experienced the illness first hand. Even more so, not knowing how to support someone you love who is struggling can feel distressing. From a healthy lens you may be tempted to want to tell them to ‘just eat’ or comment that their weight is ‘looking healthier,’ when in reality both of these approaches are unhelpful and might make recovery harder for your loved one. The best kind of support goes back to the basic human need of needing to be seen and their pain acknowledged.
Take the pressure off. You don’t need to fix them.
The most important thing to remember is that it’s not your responsibility to ‘fix’ your loved one. From the point of view of the eating disorder brain, your attempts to push or fix will be felt as policing, often resulting in more resistance. Leave the healing work to the professionals and practice being a really good listener. Your presence as an excellent listener, hearing about their experience so that you can better understand what it feels like to be them, is the best kind of support.
Make it known that you are available to support them in whatever capacity they feel will be helpful. They really need the reinforcement that you want to be by their side and that you love them, even on the days they are struggling the most. This might look like sitting with them at night for distraction, eating meals with them, attending therapy together, or being available to text when the urge to engage in behaviors feels extra strong.
Use neutral language.
Use neutral language when communicating with your loved one. Instead of commenting on their body or questioning their food choices, ask how they are doing. Let them know you are proud of them every single day. Remind them of all the things that make them special to you. The use of neutral language is not only helpful for people recovering from an eating disorder, but a positive mental health move for anyone!
No talk of how much they weigh, if their weight has changed, how much you wish they weighed, or what weight seems too much. No matter how you frame a weight comment, the eating disorder brain will twist your words and use them as fuel. Do not use words like ‘obese,’ ‘overweight,’ or BMI. These terms are stigmatizing and/or tell us nothing about a person’s health or worth.
Comments should be centered around the function of our body or what it allows us to do rather than aesthetics or outward appearance. For example, being able to soak up nature, have the ability to play with the dog, or give someone a hug. Comment as often as you can about how this person positively impacts your life, the memories that you have together, and what you hope the future brings.
No talk of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, healthy or unhealthy foods, calories, or specific amounts of food. Our body has the ability to process all foods and all foods can be utilized by our body (with the exception of true allergies). No one food makes you healthier or unhealthier or makes you lose or gain weight. It is the behaviors we engage in over time that impact our health. The point of food neutrality is to remove the power we have given certain foods over others so that we can become competent, mindful eaters.
Practice compassion and acceptance
Your loved one is working really hard to reconnect with their body’s needs and heal. This feels like a fulltime job to them and most of their brain space is occupied with recovery. Practice compassion on the days that test your relationship and accept that they are not intentionally trying to cause anyone else pain. They did not cause (and neither did you) their illness. Eating disorders are complex. Many factors go into the development of the illness and many factors go into recovering.
You are such a vital part of your loved one’s recovery. They need your unconditional love to be able to strengthen their healthy self. They need to be seen and their pain acknowledged and the above tips go beyond supporting our loved ones who are struggling. Everyone has a relationship with food and their body that needs nurturing. Together, we can make the world more inclusive and safe for everyone who is trying to become more at home in their body.
Haley Goodrich, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian fiercely passionate passionate about helping others create flexible, joyful eating habits and cultivate a peaceful relationship with their body. Haley specializes in intuitive eating, eating disorder recovery and body image healing from a Health at Every Size perspective. She is currently pursuing her Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) Certification. In addition to her full-time private practice she is also the co-founder of INSPIRD to SEEK, a community- based learning experience designed to mentor and guide nutrition entrepreneurs to build amazing businesses. Visit her website or connect with Haley on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.