If you look up “signs of an eating disorder” (ED), you’ll find an endless stream of websites listing clinical symptoms and warning signs. While many indications of EDs are simple to spot (for example, noticeable fluctuations in weight), many less obvious—but equally serious—signs can go unnoticed. Troubling obsessions and rituals around food and weight might occur internally or behind closed doors, making them difficult for others to detect. But just because someone appears to be functioning normally on the surface doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling.
ED recovery is a long and challenging journey, and the role of a loved one is complex. Firstly, not everyone has (or can rely on) a loved one to get them through it. For those that do, loved ones can play an essential role in recovery by offering dependable, non-judgmental support. However, since having an ED often involves pushing others away and clinging to one’s ED symptoms—this can send a confusing message for a loved one who’s been alienated by the person suffering.
As a loved one, you can’t expect yourself to “go in and save someone”. That being said, here are a few things that can help you support your loved one if they struggle in their relationship to food and body image.
1. Express your concerns gently: When expressing your concerns, it's important to choose your words carefully and avoid sounding accusatory or critical. Try to approach the conversation with empathy and understanding. You can start by acknowledging that you may not know the full picture, but you've noticed changes in their behaviour or mood, and are worried about their well-being.
2. Encourage professional help: Explain to your loved one that although you are there for them, eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that often require professional help. Encourage your loved one to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional, such as a therapist or family doctor. A diagnosis is not necessary to seek help, and early intervention can have a significant influence on ED recovery. Let your loved one know that there’s no shame in admitting they need help. Inform them that EDs arise due to a host of genetic and environmental factors—and it’s not their fault they are struggling.
3. Educate yourself: Take the time to learn about eating disorders and their effects. This can help you better understand what to do and what not to do as your loved one is going through recovery. Avoid oversimplified advice such as “just eat” and don’t make flippant comments about food, appearance, or weight about anyone—this can be triggering.
4. Offer personal and practical support: Listen to them without judgment and offer empathy and encouragement, and let your loved one know that you are there to support them emotionally and otherwise. This might include things like helping them with household chores, running errands, or cooking them a meal—given they are comfortable with that.
5. Take care of yourself: Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be emotionally challenging, so it's crucial to take care of your own well-being. Make sure you have your support system and practice self-care regularly—avoid making commitments that go beyond your capacity or your boundaries. Remember that professional mental health treatment is an option for you too. In fact, it can help you model the normalcy around getting help for those around you.
Sometimes, just showing someone that you care can go a long way. Remember that EDs are complex mental health conditions that require professional help—and progress can be slow and nonlinear. Supporting your loved one can be an indispensable part of their recovery journey, but keep in mind that you are only one person, and there’s a limit to what you can do.