Helping Those with Eating Disorders

  • By:  Natalie Wingfield

Everyone knows someone who has been affected by an eating disorder. It could be your sibling, spouse, coworker, friend, or child. Family and friends can make a huge difference for someone recovering from an eating disorder, but if you’re worried about your loved one, you might not know where to start. He or she may have been diagnosed with an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. Or, maybe you are concerned that you are noticing the first signs of something serious.

Some signs of a potential eating disorder include: extreme dieting, avoiding whole food groups, extreme weight loss, binging, purging, extreme exercising, eating in secret, refusing to eat with others, distorted body image, intense emotions such as guilt and shame surrounding eating and weight, and obsessive thoughts about eating.

Eating disorders aren’t really about food or weight. They are an attempt to deal with intense emotions, uncomfortable situations, or to meet other needs. Eating disorder symptoms may actually provide temporary relief to the person struggling, which is part of what makes them so difficult to overcome. People in recovery have to learn a whole new way of coping, without turning to food or other unhealthy behaviors.

As a therapist, I’ve had the opportunity to work with those struggling with eating disorders, as well as their friends and families. I hear from many clients that people in their lives want to help but don’t know how and don’t understand. I get the same message from loved ones. They feel lost, scared, and aren’t sure how to help. Some end up overextending themselves and taking responsibility for their friend or family member’s recovery, winding up exhausted and frustrated. Others withdraw and feel helpless because they’re scared they will do the wrong thing or have no idea where to start.

Remember – recovery from an eating disorder is possible. It’s a long, hard process but supportive people can make a huge difference. How you can help:

• Share your concerns. Gently communicate specific instances when you were concerned about your loved one’s eating or exercising behaviors. Avoid talking about his/her body and focus instead on his/her health and well being.

• Encourage your loved one to get help. One of the most important steps in recovery is seeking professional help. Encourage your loved one to get help and offer resources but remember you can’t force him or her to go. Be patient. It may take someone a long time to work up the courage to make the first call or walk into a support group.

• Don’t be a mind reader. Ask your loved one what he/she needs and how you can help. Create a safe space and encourage him or her to express feelings openly. Listen attentively and empathetically.

• Don’t be the food police. Food isn’t the real issue and you can’t stop your loved one from behaving in certain ways if he/she chooses to. Vigilantly monitoring what he/she eats, bathroom visits, or exercise can create difficult relationship dynamics, leading to resentment. Avoid power struggles. They only make things worse.

• Avoid “fat talk,” or talking about diets. This can be very triggering for someone struggling with an eating disorder and can reinforce disordered thinking. There is plenty of negative body talk everywhere we turn—in magazines, on TV, etc. Keep your relationship fat- and diet-talk free.

• Offer compliments often. Say positive things about your loved one’s personality, successes, qualities as a friend, etc. instead of his or her body. Remind him or her that the qualities you love have nothing to do with his or her body.

• Avoid blame, shame, and guilt. Stay positive and encouraging.

• Help yourself. Remember, you are not responsible for your loved one’s recovery. Know your limits and don’t overextend yourself. Get support for yourself: a therapist, trusted friend, or support group. Take good care of yourself by relaxing and doing things you love. Keep yourself strong so you can be there for your loved one. 

Show your support at the first annual Virginia Beach National Eating Disorder Association Walk on Oct. 11 at 9:30 a.m. at Mount Trashmore in Va. Beach. Register at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/neda-walks 

For more information about eating disorders, call the helpline 1-800-931-2237 or visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

Natalie Wingfield, LPC is on the committee for the first annual NEDA walk. She is a licensed professional counselor specializing in eating disorders at Virginia Beach Counseling and Wellness.

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