What Not to Say to Someone With an Eating Disorder

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It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, so to stay with that theme, I thought it might be worthwhile to write about one of the most common questions I get from parents of my eating disorder (ED) patients: “What should I not say to my daughter/son who has an active ED?” Working with hundreds of ED patients and their families, I have compiled a list of “what not to say to or around your loved one who is struggling with an ED.” Here are three comments that could be triggering to your loved one.

1) “You look so healthy! How could you possibly have an ED?”

On the surface, this seems to be an innocuous and even positive comment. But, all the ED patient hears is: “You don’t look emaciated enough to have an ED. So therefore, you are fat.” Clearly, this is not what the speaker intended, but someone with an ED has a very distorted view of themselves and how others perceive him or her. It’s important to remember that people with EDs come in all shapes and sizes and it really isn’t possible to determine the severity of someone’s ED just by looking at him or her.

2) “I can’t believe how fat I’ve gotten! That’s it, no more carbs ‘til Christmas!”

I can’t tell you how many times my patients tell me that one of their parents has uttered the above. A parent might think that since the comment is about himself or herself, it shouldn’t be triggering to the child. This is incorrect. Kids learn by example and if they hear you talk badly about yourself and be critical of your body, they will think it’s okay for them to talk badly about themselves and criticize their bodies. This just fuels the ED even more.

3) “I know she needs to gain weight to be healthy. But we don’t want her to gain too much weight, right?”

Yes, I have heard these words from a number of parents and in front of their kid, no less. Weight gain is often a requirement in the recovery for anorexia nervosa. But weight isn’t the only factor that needs to be measured. Vital signs such as heart rate and blood pressure both lying down and standing up are very important indicators of health. Other measures of health include blood tests to look at nutrition status, whether or not a menstruating female has lost their period, and bone density. EDs take a toll on the entire body, not just weight. By keeping the focus on weight, we are fueling the idea that weight is the end all and be all. This is just not true.

Obviously, none of the above comments are meant to be malicious – we all want the best for our loved ones. But, it’s important to think about how your comment might be perceived by your son/daughter/sister/friend. We can’t edit ourselves every minute of every day, but by being aware of your words, you could spare your loved one (and yourself) a lot of unnecessary grief.

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