Tips for Family Members: When Someone You Love Has an Eating Disorder

Health Writer
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We are officially moving into the "eating season," starting next week with Thanksgiving, a holiday that centers on a lavish meal. For many of us, the one day of overeating isn’t a problem - we eat healthy the day before and the day after. But for those with eating disorders, every meal presents a problem and Thanksgiving could be a difficult day to get through.

Those with eating disorders might eat very little or they may gorge themselves, depending on the specific type of eating disorder. The three most common types of eating disorders are:

Anorexia - People with anorexia often starve themselves. They are often overweight but have an intense fear of gaining weight and becoming fat. They are usually underweight but restrict calories and may exercise excessively, especially after eating something.

Bulimia - Those with bulimia overeat or binge eat and them purge themselves either by vomiting or taking laxatives.

Binge eating - People who binge eat compulsively eat, consuming thousands of calories in a short amount of time. They feel guilt and shame afterwards but feel unable to control their behavior or stop eating when full.

If you have a loved one with an eating disorder, family meals, including Thanksgiving, can be incredibly stressful. If your relative has anorexia, you might carefully watch to make sure she is eating enough food or if she has bulimia you might keep track of where she goes when done eating. Forcing your loved one to eat or following her around after the meal isn’t helpful. It’s important to remember that eating disorders aren’t usually about weight or food, they are a way to deal with emotional pain or stress.

If you want to offer your support, a family gathering probably isn’t the best place. Try to schedule a time to get together when your loved one is comfortable and relaxed. When you offer support, don’t attack. Start with “I” statements, such as, “I am concerned…” instead of “You are losing too much weight.” Offer your support and acceptance.

Treatment is available and is an important step toward recovery for those with eating disorders. Encourage your loved one to seek treatment, offer to go to the doctor but don’t force the issue. At first your loved one might push back and become defensive. Be patient and gently let her know that you are there, whenever she is ready.

Refrain from any discussion about body shape and weight. People with eating disorders are usually very sensitive about body image. If you make comments about other people’s weight or body shape (including your own), there is a good chance your loved one will take it personally or use it to compare his or her body to the one you are discussing.

Never force her to eat. When you love someone and you know the best thing is for them to eat a healthy meal, you might be tempted to try guilt, manipulation, bribing or any other method to get her to eat. Resist the urge. Remember it isn’t about the food, changing the thought process about body image and learning better coping mechanisms is more helpful but this is usually done with a qualified therapist.

Don’t punish or threaten. It might be easier if you said, “I give up, I don’t want to be around you anymore,” and end the friendship or stop spending time with your loved one but that isn’t the answer. Your loved one is probably already feeling lost, stressed, lonely or depressed. Rather than add to that, continue to gently suggest seeking professional help.

Remind her how much you value her. Make sure your loved one knows that you love and respect her. Let her know that she has many wonderful traits and that you enjoy being with her because of these.

Understand that eating disorders are a way of coping with stress. Even if your loved one seeks treatment and is doing well, she may slip during times of stress. Eating disorders are a way of coping with stress and feeling “in control” of some parts of life. Don’t be hard on your loved one if she slides back into eating disorder behaviors, be supportive and encouraging.

If in treatment, give your loved one time to recover. An eating disorder isn’t like a cold or sore throat. You can’t take a pill and be better in a day or two. Treatment for eating disorders take time and patience. If you are a close family member, ask to attend doctor’s visits so you better understand the recovery process.

For those who have a close family member, such as a sibling or daughter, you need to remember to care for yourself. Focusing all your energy and time on your loved one can be exhausting but don’t fall into ignoring your own physical and emotional needs. You must take care of yourself in order to care for your loved one.

For more information on eating disorders:

Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Tips for Managing an Eating Disorder During the Holidays

The Link Between ADHD and Eating Disorders

GERD and Eating Dis