Last night’s Season 15 Finale of The Biggest Loser opened up a dialogue about a sensitive topic: eating disorders. In a show that already has some controversy about weight loss, viewers have hit social media with thoughts that are making everyone pause- and start talking about ways to support and help those who face eating disorders.
Matters of food and weight are huge stressors for women and men alike. It’s common for thoughts about food to keep you from being able to think about anything else or to feel confident about yourself in other areas of your life. As I work with clients in my office to help them cope and heal from eating disorders, one common theme that comes up over and over is how to let those in their lives know how to best help them. There are often many people in their lives who want to be helpful, but sometimes the ways that they try to help make the path to recovery a little trickier.
So if someone you know and care about has struggles with food, just what can you do to help?
1. Understand that Even Comments Intended to Help, May Not Be Helpful
Whether your loved one needs to lose weight or gain weight, one thing that is shared is a sensitivity about food and what others perceive. Even though what you may say wouldn’t offend you if someone said it to you, it may be hurtful and come across as judgmental to them. Many people get that what the other person sees reflected in the mirror and how you see them are very different images. The same thing goes for words. Just as physical reflections are often distorted from what is really there, words can also be distorted away from what you were trying to say. Even saying something that feels helpful like, “You look fine just the way you are,” can be interpreted differently by your loved one.
If you make a comment and you notice that your loved one seems to pull away a bit, address it. Ask them if what you said came across in a hurtful way. Don’t be afraid to ask them how you could have said if differently. Even if they aren’t sure how you could have said it differently, it allows both of you to feel connected and to feel the caring. That connection is the important part that will help the healing process.
2. Avoid Asking, “What Have You Eaten?”
This question is often asked in love, but it puts your friend or family member on the spot and can make them feel awkward either way. If they have eaten more than they think they should have, it can add more guilt by knowing that someone else now knows just how much they’ve eaten. If they haven’t eaten enough, it can make them feel forced to eat when they aren’t hungry or just to make someone else happy (which are unhealthy food habits for anyone).
3. Don’t Stare at Them While They Eat
Often people who struggle with food tend to eat alone, whether they are over or under weight. This helps them to keep from feeling like everyone is watching them. Some people may feel like others are disgusted by how much they eat, while others may be self-conscious of those who point out that they aren’t eating very much at all. Both can magnify the situation and the thoughts that go through their mind.
Instead, draw attention to something else, like a squirrel outside of the window who’s upside down, something that happened during the day, ask them about work or school, or talk about upcoming plans together. Focus on positive topics during meal time. Avoid any criticism or negative feedback- even about someone else.
4. Keep in Mind that Your Perceptions are Different
One concept with eating disorders is feeling like you aren’t like people around you and that you are different from everyone else. For instance, they may feel that everyone else is able to maintain a healthy weight without any effort at all or that everyone else can eat anything without gaining an ounce or without having to work out. What may be a simple meal to you, may be full of foods that trigger guilt for them. Why you may feel is an appropriate serving size, may have hidden implications for them later, resulting in starving at a later meal, purging, an excessive workout, or even laxatives to help them feel in control of their food intake again.
5. Present Built-in Solutions
Cooking together is a common activity for couples, families, and roommates. But for someone who struggles with food, it can be uncomfortable. When you bring up making a meal together, share solutions that address their fears- without them even having to protest. For instance, pasta can be a hard food for many food conscious people to eat. So saying, “I found this great new salad I want to make tonight and we can have a small helping of pasta of the side. Do you want to help me cut up the veggies?” shares the invitation, the menu, and addresses likely food concerns they may have. The solution is built-in to the offer.
The same thing goes for eating out. It’s easy to feel disconnected to your significant other if they always turn down your invitations to dinner. So saying something like, “I hear there’s a new smoothie flavor at Jamba Juice that I would love to try. Do you want to go with me?” Splitting snacks, trying new foods together, and planning to have some leftovers for the next day’s lunch are also great options for eating out.
These are just a handful of suggestions to help you get started. As with any situation, taking time to ask your friend or loved one how you can best help is always a good option. Even if they don’t know how to respond, they will get that you care. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals to find out how you can help, too. Asking your doctor, a nutritionist, or a counselor for some solutions can also help you to help them.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and you’re not sure how to help, please feel free to send me an email. I know this can be a tricky issue at times and I’m happy to help in any way I can.