How to actually help those with eating disorders
I can not speak on behalf of the 20+ million people who have eating disorders, and it would be foolish to claim that I can. However, having experienced two eating disorders for a good bit of my life (and having been in numerous support groups for it), I feel I can give a good insight on how loved ones can attempt to help those with an eating disorer.
Never force someone eat.
You can sit our favorite food down in front of us, and on good days we might get through a good bit of it. On our bad days, we might just poke at it with our utensils. On our worst days, we will just stare at it. Studies show attempting to force feed anyone (espicially young children) dramatically increases the risk of developing an eating disorder. “Eat this or starve” is a completely toxic attitude that will only lead to more struggle and pain. This doesn’t mean feed someone (again, espicially kids) cake and chocolate for every meal, but there will be times when your hands are tied.
We know you want us to be healthy. We now you want us to eat. But the issue goes so much deeper than just food. It could be a phobia that has developed of food. It could be a sensory issue with the particular food. It could be a bad part of our conscious telling us inside our head that the food is poisoned (even though our rationale side knows perfectly well that it is not poisoned).
Do not ever mention weight.
It’s never about an “ideal weight”. It was never about “just X more pounds/grams/kilograms”. Studies show eating disorders often turn into addiction-type behavior where “feel good” sensations and feelings come from self inflicted starvation (or eating food that has little to no nutritional value or items that shouldn’t be able to be consumed, like glass). It becomes a biochemical positive feedback loop, where we end up encouraging ourselves to continue to indulge in these self destructive habits, even though our logical mind knows how dangerous these habits are.
It’s not about looking beautiful.
It might start off as wanting to look like a photoshopped celebrity, but that’s not where the eating disorder takes you. It warps your internal dialogue and perceptions. It is the little devil on your shoulder, whispering extremely damaging things into your ear about your body.
Do not show us grisly images of emaciated people.
A lot of people with eating disorders struggle with body image issues as well. We know how bad our bodies are currently looking or will look if we continue our disordered eating. We don’t need you shoving grotesque imagery of stick-thin people in our face as a way of “scaring us” into suddenly recovering.
Religion doesn’t work for everyone.
Telling me to “pray to God” won’t work for me, but it might help someone else. Do keep in mind though, these spiritual methods are only band aids to the bigger problem.
It is ultimately up to us to make the decision to recover.
We know how damaging eating disorders are. We know how it can wreak absolute Hell on our bodies. We know people die from our eating disorders (emaciation, malnutrition, etc.). However, shoving these facts in our face or throwing eating disorder pamphlets at us isn’t going to suddenly make us turn around and go “you know, that’s just what I needed to get better.”
It is ultimately up to the person with the eating disorder to modify their behavior and mentality to begin the recovery process. No one is ever truly “cured” from their eating disorder, but they can go through long periods without relapsing into disordered eating behavior.