Eating disorders are difficult to manage. For some sufferers, especially atypical sufferers, the illness can be almost invisible. As a consequence, this undercover illness then has time to manifest and worsen while hidden away from public view.
Sufferers often express almost innocent statements, speaking about losing weight and being healthy can almost blend in with the current fitness epidemic. It can be easy, not only for friends and partners but even for medical professionals to dismiss sufferers as just “getting healthy”. This is especially true if, on the surface, you seem “normal” or overweight. Sometimes even the sufferer themselves can blur the lines between the desire to “be active” and desire to lose weight.
But what can you do if somebody tells you they have an eating disorder?
The simple answer isn’t easy. Everybody is unique, and what works for some sufferers may not at all work for others. When neither I nor my partner could figure out how to support me through atypical anorexia, I became inspired to make sure that nobody else has the same problem. I didn’t want anybody else to have to watch their partner, their friend, or their family member suffer helplessly. So I consulted both sufferers and medical experts from the Eating Recovery Centre for advice on how to help a loved one with an eating disorder.
This is the first of a three-part article series about eating disorders, you can find the first article about Eating Disorder Misconceptions here.
In this installment, Bonnie Brennan, Senior Clinical Director of Eating Recovery Center, Denver speaks to us about how to assist a loved one with their eating disorder. Next week we will hear directly from sufferers themselves.
What are the best things you can do to support a partner or friend with an eating disorder?
“Seeking help is the most important, and for many, the most difficult step in the recovery process. If someone is concerned that they may be struggling with an eating disorder, it is important to consult with a physician and seek an assessment from a qualified eating disorders specialist at a local eating disorders treatment center.
At Eating Recovery Center, we offer a confidential chat option through the website where individuals who are either concerned about themselves or a friend or loved one can chat with a Master’s level therapist, get their questions answered and learn what next steps should be, specific to their situation.
It is never too late or too early to get help. Our bodies and minds can do amazing things. If you are struggling, there is support out there. Be kind to yourself and make choices that take you towards what you value in this life.
Making the decision to enter treatment may be the first committed action towards true vitality.”
How should you handle cooking for or eating with someone with an eating disorder?
“Most people who have little or no experience with eating disorders are nervous and scared about saying the wrong thing to someone in recovery or feel responsible for making sure they don’t do anything to upset them. Sometimes this takes the form of questions and awkward comments.
Our patients at Eating Recovery Center really appreciate it when their family and friends eat a full meal with them that represents a balanced diet.
It can be really difficult for them to navigate how to order food and what to eat. Let them know you care about them and role model what normal eating can look like. We advise a balance of all food groups and trying to stay away from making food choices based on a diet or calorie counting.”
Are there any important things to be aware of when living with someone with an eating disorder?
“For those who think a friend may be suffering from an eating disorder there are distinct “red flags” you should be aware of. Warning signs for anorexia may include dramatic weight loss, preoccupation of weight and an obsession with calorie counting and denying hunger.
Individuals may make comments about feeling “fat” or overweight, and withdraw from usual social events with friends because they have developed food rituals and are avoiding situations involving food.
Warning signs of bulimia are different. Evidence of binge-eating include disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods of time and purging behaviours. Your friend may be taking frequent trips to the bathroom after they eat, so be aware of signs of vomiting or indication of laxative use. Many young people develop complex schedules to make time for binge-and-purge rituals. As for physical signs, unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw area is a common side effect of self-induced purging.
We live in a “dieting culture” that identifies – even strives to live by – “good” and “bad” foods.
As a result, another variation of an eating disorder called orthorexia is on the rise, and it involves people who are overly focused on eating healthy foods. These people take healthy eating to the extreme where they’re eliminating so many foods from their diet that they are suffering from malnutrition and serious health consequences.”
What have your patients found helps them the most?
“Raising awareness, talking about challenges, and broaden our understanding of the many faces of eating disorders is extremely important in regard to saving lives. When people who are affected by eating disorders speak up and ask for help, I consider that a win. If you’re still working on asking for help, the decision will be a hard one, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
The most powerful thing people in recovery say was helpful to them was the people in their life who weren’t afraid to take the risk and let them know they saw the eating disorder behaviours and that they wanted to help.
Even if they were angry for being called out, they remember those folks when they recover.”
Bonnie Brennan was kind enough to share advice from the Eating Recovery Center, who I thank for helping me write this advice piece. Remember that everyone’s eating disorder is different, so symptoms may manifest differently in different people. Some advice may not be appropriate for your loved one. The best way to go forward is to take in the advice from this article and talk to your loved one about what they are currently comfortable with. Some may be hesitant to try certain things, and some people might take more time to accept help and assistance. Affinity Magazine advises that you help your partner seek professional help.
Next week, I talk to sufferers about what they believe helps them the most on their road to recovery.
International sufferers may be able to find local support at the International Eating Disorder Recovery Database.