Never Say This to Someone With an Eating Disorder

Image courtesy of National Eating Disorder Association (@neda)

Eating disorders (ED’s) affect millions of people all over the world; people of all genders, races, ethnicities and cultures become victims of ED’s. There certainly are classic stereotypes for what people imagine when thinking of those with an eating disorder. The reality is that you do not need to be thin in order to be anorexic. You do not need to be lonely in order to binge. You do not need to be a female in order to purge, etc. In short, ED’s are most likely present and persistently painful for multiple people you interact with on a daily basis. There’s a chance you’ve accidentally provoked them about their eating disorder without even knowing.

While suffering from an eating disorder, it’s common to be hypersensitive to any dialogue about food or weight. As someone recovering from anorexia, I have undergone hundreds of interactions that often leave me regretful of the meal plan I have to follow, anxious about the way I don’t fit into a size zero anymore, and envious about the way other people eat so freely. Learning about phrases that can upset someone with an ED can help open up the conversation about eating disorders and encourage a more safe environment for those recovering and/or currently struggling.

Here are eight ways you might be accidentally provoking someone with an eating disorder:

1. “What do you eat when you want a cheat meal?”

Many of the phrases that provoke someone with an eating disorder are rooted in honest, innocent curiosity. While you may just want to know whether they prefer ice cream or donuts, asking someone with an ED what they eat can be a tough question to answer; there’s a good chance that there are certain foods that even the thought of causes crippling anxiety. While you may think of a cheat meal as splurging on a pizza with friends at a party, someone with an ED may feel like anytime they eat at all is a “cheat meal.” Asking about “unhealthy” food to someone with an ED reminds them of how different they are compared to other people’s eating patterns, and this often leads to a pretty awkward conversation. Even though discussing unhealthy foods can be fun, avoiding the topic around people with an ED may save them self-doubt or guilt.

2. “I feel SO gross. I’m not eating for the next three days.”

This is another comment that is entrenched in insecurity. Saying this around people with an ED may cause triggering flashbacks towards old eating habits that led them down such perilous paths. Also, this phrase is an exaggeration of simply wanting to eat less to lose weight, which can even turn into envy from an ED victim. Instead of saying this, maybe consider, “I really am going to try eating healthier so I feel better about myself.” Reframing the idea of eating less to lose weight can make conversations revolve around health rather than an ED.

3. “I wish I could just be anorexic for just one meal.”

The real meaning behind this phrase is simply someone wishing they didn’t eat as much because they want to lose weight. However, it is incredibly offensive to someone who suffers from such a terrifying disorder. ED’s are not a luxurious ticket to being thin and eating salads all day. They are gruesome, relentless MENTAL disorders with potentially deadly side effects. I guarantee you, nobody would ever want to suffer from anorexia for ten seconds, let alone for one meal.

4. “Don’t you ever get bored of eating the same foods every day?”

Again, curiosity acts as the treacherous weapon to provoke someone with an ED. It may seem crazy to you how someone can eat so “clean,” never pig out on french fries, or never seems to have the urge to dive into some candy at the movies. There’s a very likely chance that the person with an ED may already feel anxious about eating out, and having their diet be analyzed by others can cause the feeling of sticking out like a sore thumb. Struggling to eat with others is a very prominent obstacle for those with an ED, so it’s probably better to avoid questioning why someone eats what they do.

5. “I wish I had the motivation to work out as much as you do!”

A compliment can even be a trigger-in-disguise for those with an ED. Many people do not know that ED’s often are accompanied by an obsession with exercise or compulsions regarding working out. Reminding someone with an ED about their workouts and exercise addiction can send them in a downward spiral; being told by your friends how working out is awesome but being told to stop by your doctors is extremely contradictory. Occasionally, hearing praise about working out may even encourage such obsessive behavior to resurface. Avoiding the topic of working out and comparisons regarding anything that revolves around weight/exercise may be a safer option.

6. “Why can’t you just eat a burger or something?”

A very common misconception about eating disorders is that they can be solved by simply eating more food. It’s as if a pizza, some fries, or a milkshake may suddenly take away all of the mental agony and guilt that eating disorders involve. ED’s are not physical disorders that can be resolved by adding or taking away calories, they are mental disorders with physical side effects and it can be unintentionally hurtful to assume differently. It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone with an eating disorder, so although you may feel like you know how to help, you are most likely not a licensed dietitian or therapist so it’s best to avoid this comment altogether.

7. “Oh my god, I can’t believe I ate so much! I’m so stuffed.”

When you have to follow a meal plan given to you by doctors, it is very easy to envy those who “get” to eat less. Hearing this phrase, especially when eating in the same setting, can lead to comparing the number of calories consumed by people. When someone who is eating a salad exclaims that they’re “so full” when your meal plan instructs you to eat hundreds of calories more, it acts as a reminder of how much you are eating, how much less they are eating, which can make you question your meal plan. The brain of a person with an ED will say, “Well, if she’s full from half a salad, you have no business finishing this meal since yours is so much bigger.” Everything about food is analyzed, noticed, and taken in by someone with an ED, so any comment regarding fullness or an amount of food can be provoking.

8. “Do you have any tips to lose weight?”

This is one of the more agitating questions to ask someone with an eating disorder. Especially if they are in recovery, asking people with an ED about losing weight can bring about some contradictory emotions and may bring them back to a more painful time in their life. In fact, it’s extremely likely that if someone has an ED, they have practiced unhealthy methods of losing weight and are in no place to recommend health advice to others. If you know someone has/had an ED, you should not ask them how they exercised, restricted food, or obsessed with eating “healthy” in order to maintain or become a specific size. This is extremely triggering and truly can only do harm.

This article is not meant to shame you if you have ever said these phrases. We are all human, we sometimes speak without thinking, and we never know what someone else is struggling with. Hopefully I introduced the idea of questioning the way you talk about food to others and yourself. Eating disorders are real and incredibly relentless, and being aware of triggering comments help encourage others to a lifetime of safety, health and wellness.

Danielle Fink

Political Science, 2022

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