This week (February 24-March 1, 2020) is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and while helping people with eating disorders directly is something super near and dear to my heart, helping their loved ones support them is also important. So today I wanted to talk about how we talk about food and recovery. I’m hoping to give you some tips on how to speak about food and bodies that will support people in recovery or with eating disorders so that you’re not doing damage unintentionally.
It’s not a moral behavior
Don’t talk about eating as a moral behavior. Unless you’re eating children, I don’t want to hear any judgment attached to it. You are not good or bad for eating certain foods. You’re just making a choice. I wouldn’t shame you for choosing to buy gasoline at BP over Shell, so I’m not going to shame you for eating pizza instead of cauliflower. Likewise, I’m not going to praise you for choosing a low-carb or low-calorie diet. It’s nothing personal, but using this language reinforces the idea that you’re not good if you don’t diet which can lead to and strengthen eating disorders.
- “I’m being bad and ordering dessert”.
- “I can’t stay away from these cupcakes! They’re dangerous”.
- “I was good at lunch- I just had a salad”
Don’t judge other’s choices
Resist the urge to talk about someone else’s food choices. What, how much, or how someone else is eating is not a topic of polite conversation. Food and eating are personal and can be complicated. Even asking if someone enjoyed their food can be tricky- it may be years since they really “enjoyed” food rather than either eating it compulsively or having to force it down despite the loud voice in their head telling them that they’re terrible for eating and that no one will love them if they “get fat”.
- “Wow you must have been hungry!”
- “That’s all you’re going to eat?”
- “I can’t believe you were able to eat all that!”
- “How can you eat junk food all the time?”
Avoid these comments
Don’t make statements about anything related to physical appearance that can’t be changed in five minutes. For example, if I have lipstick on my teeth, please tell me. But if I’ve gained weight, don’t comment. I know it already and bringing it up may trigger all the disordered thinking that they’ve worked hard to overcome.
Here’s another important key: we don’t always know who’s struggling. Please avoid these comments no matter who you’re talking to. Some people are forthcoming about struggles with food, eating, and body image but others who struggle do so privately. When someone in the community is sick, it’s our responsibility as a community to help them heal. Because of the internet, we’re all one large community. When you’re posting on Facebook, you’re addressing a lot of people who may or may not be struggling.
Talk about something else
I’m not trying to ruin all your “easy” conversation at lunch with “politically correct” constraints. The goal isn’t to protect people from hard conversations that are hard so that they don’t have to do the work to heal, it’s to give them a healthy space to do their healing. Talk about the weather, the Red Wings (though that’s a heartbreaking topic lately), your job, your dream vacation, but not weight or eating unless you feel comfortable that you can approach it in a safe way. Asking someone how they’re doing is helpful.
Pushing for more (Asking “Yeah, but how’s your eating disorder” when they say they’re fine) is not. If you’re living with someone who has an eating disorder and is in recovery, things can shift a little bit. Re-feeding programs (the first step in recovery where people begin to start eating in a scheduled way to get them enough nutrients for their body to start healing) often involve the family helping to hold the person with the disorder accountable. Please don’t take this on without a direct request though.
I know people with disorders who will say “hey, can you check in around 2 and just ask if I’ve eaten anything?” to help hold them accountable. I know other people who just text a friend what they’ve eaten to help them be accountable for having enough to feed themselves. When you’re working with an adult or older adolescent, give them the control unless instructed otherwise by a treatment professional who’s working with them. You can ask if those things would help, but don’t tell them they have to do it.
Support can help
It can absolutely feel like walking on eggshells and you won’t always have the right words. Get support for yourself! Loving someone with an eating disorder will very likely bring up any painful attitudes or beliefs you have about your own eating and/or body.
I hope this has helped. If you have questions or need further support, please reach out. If not to myself, nationaleatingdisorders.org is a fantastic resource! Be well friends and I’ll see you next time.
Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.