9 Things You Should Never Say to Someone with an Eating Disorder

Why they are harmful and what you can say instead

Zeynep Demirelli

8/1/20210 min read

Oftentimes, the natural course of the conversation is directed towards physical appearance. Especially when we have not seen a person for a long time. Comments like; “Nice dress!”, “I like your watch.” or “I like the way you put your hair today, it gives you a different vibe.” are innocent. However, some other comments, with similar intentions or not, may be harmful. In this blog, I will talk about what you should not say to people with eating disorders. As humans, we tend to not think twice before saying something which we were previously not made conscious of. I hope this serves as your conscious call.

1. ‘‘You are going to eat that? You are trying to eat healthy right? I thought you did not eat such things’’

This comment implies two things: ‘‘people with eating disorders only eat so-called good foods’’ and ‘‘there are good and bad foods’’. First of all, the belief that people with eating disorders eat only healthy foods, is a complete misunderstanding. Second, labeling food as; good and bad associates eating with feelings of guilt and shame, further reinforcing black-and-white thinking. This encourages unhealthy behaviors like restricting and purging. Being flexible around food is extremely important when recovering from an eating disorder. This sentence leaves no place for flexibility. As an example, on a given day, they may be trying to overcome their fear of calorically dense foods. When they receive this comment, it will most probably fuel their fear and will leave them feeling ashamed of even trying. It might also strengthen their negativebeliefs about eating certain food groups.

What you can do instead:

- Do not make any comments about their food preferences.

2. ‘‘That’s normal! Everybody binges’’

There is an important difference between binging and overeating. Overeating can be described as eating until you feel uncomfortably full. There are times when we all overeat: a special occasion with our family, going to the movies with our friends, our grandmother cooking us our favorite meal. By definition, binging may be similar. But they differ in one important point: binging has an emotional side to it. When binging, people usually describe themselves as being very much the opposite of mindful, with feelings of loss of control around food. It is followed by feelings of guilt and shame, causing the individual severe distress. So, yes everyone may overeat but not everyone binges, it’s a disordered behavior.

What you can do instead:

- ‘‘I guess sometimes we all overeat but I understand that what you are experiencing is something different. Can you tell me more about it?’’

3. ‘‘We all have been there’’

This simply belittles the experience of the other person. It gives the message that 'it is nothing significant or abnormal'. We can have similar experiences but in the end, everyone has their own unique experience. Other people, or you, also going through it doesn't change the fact that they are suffering right now.

What you can do instead:

- ‘‘I can only imagine how hard this must be for you, I know other people who went through similar things. What can I do to help?’’

4. ‘‘You have nothing to worry about, you look skinny and great!’’

When someone is struggling with their body image, we often react by telling them how slim and good they look. The problem is that - one, they probably will not believeyou; - two, these types of comments encourage disordered behavior (such as restricting, purging). If they are complimented each time, such comments will become a positive reinforcement, further maintaining their disorder. Additionally, it gives the message that as long as they look skinny, there is nothing to worry about; that the way they look should come first rather than what they are feeling. It may also make them feel like their experience is invalid. Regardless of how they look or how much they weigh, they are struggling. And by making such a comment, you are telling them you are struggling over nothing.

What you can do instead:

- Make no comments on their appearance, neither negatively nor positively. Eating disorders may seem like a disorder about physical appearance only, but they are actually mental illnesses. They are also usually accompanied by body dysmorphia, so they see their bodies differently than how you see them.

5. ‘‘It is just food, nothing to get upset about’’

Eating disorders may be a hard concept to grasp, especially for people who have neverexperienced problems with their diet or body image. For those people, food is literally only fuel. Therefore, it is a relatively simple concept for them: you eat when you are hungry and don’t when you are not. On the other hand, when you struggle with an eating disorder, food becomes the center of your problems. It is important to remember that everyone may struggle with different things and people may have different attitudes towards food. Telling them ‘‘it is just food’’ only invalidates their feelings and makes them upset, nobody is just going to say ‘‘Oh you are right, thank you for that’’.

What you can do instead:

- ‘‘I see that you have a different way of seeing food. Can you help me understand?’’‘

6. ‘‘I haven’t eaten anything all day’’

This sounds like an innocent comment, one of the most common ones, as it is about your own personal feeling at the time. Talking about your own food intake may be extremely triggering for them. Why? It may create a feeling of competition and they may feel guilty about how much they have eaten (regardless of how much they have eaten).

What you can do instead:

- ‘‘I am very hungry, I would like to eat something. Would you like to join me?’

7. ‘‘I wish I had your self-control’’

This encourages disordered behavior as it implies that whatever they are doing is well and that they should keep it up. It also over-simplifies what people with eating disorders go through. Praising someone for the way they eat, and associating it with self-control makes it seem like eating disorders are all about willpower and self-control, which is not true. You don't know what that person is experiencing but you can be sure that you wouldn't want that.

What you can do instead:

- Do not compare yourself with them, or them with anyone else.

8. ‘‘I think I have an eating disorder too. I barely eat’’

When someone confides in you, the immediate urge may be to tell them that you are experiencing something similar. That is why this comment is usually made with ‘‘good’’ intentions. You may want to bond by showing that you relate to that person, but it also sounds like you are changing the topic from their experience to yours. This can make the other person feel unseen and unheard. If you struggle too and you would like to show that you can relate to them, it may be best to start with an empathicresponse.

What you can do instead:

- ‘‘I’m sorry to hear that you are struggling, I can really relate to you. Would you like to talk more about it?’’

9. ANY comments regarding their physical appearance

Most of the people I know who struggle with an eating disorder have received severalcomments about their physical appearance throughout their lives. They may be caused by low awareness. Or they may honestly come with good intentions, but these comments usually are massive triggers for eating disorders. Let’s just agree to never say these 9 things to anyone and not make comments about their physical appearance.