This article talks about eating disorders in depth and heavy descriptions of such. If you’re sensitive to these topics, this article might not be your cup of tea.
Having an eating disorder is… Hard, to say the least. For me, it means logging everything in a calorie app and always trying to estimate how much fat is in each harmless piece of candy my friends offer me. It means feeling the food rot in my stomach and wanting to rip out my guts because, God, how do I have so much stomach? My semi-recovery (which is ongoing) from anorexia nervosa has been aided enormously by friends who took the time to think about how I acted around food, and who made a conscious effort to help me.
I’ve compiled a few tips here for any of you who may know people with eating disorders and want to help.
One of the things that help a lot is making sure that the person with the ED (eating disorder) has the smallest meal when you go out to eat.
I often wait until after my friends have all decided what they want so that I can be sure to have the smallest portion in comparison— because what they’re eating is the “normal” size meal, and I need to lose weight, so I must need a smaller size. If you can, try to emphasize how you’re eating so much more than your friend. If you notice your friend isn’t eating at all, try to offer them little things on the sly. If you have an extra granola bar, see if you can get your friend to take it. Offer them one of your chips, or don’t make a big deal if they borrow one of your fries. I personally hate eating in front of people because I feel like I’ll be judged for “pigging out”, even if I’m only eating a very small amount, so it helps if people don’t watch me eat. Some people with eating disorders will wait for you to look away before taking a bite of anything, and if that’s the case with your friend, just don’t look at them. It’s a polite thing to do anyway—no one likes to be stared at while eating—but especially if you know it’ll help someone out.
Going out to eat is a minefield for anyone with an eating disorder, and the number one issue for many people is the bread basket. When you go somewhere and they set out a complimentary bowl of breadsticks, or chips, or whatever it is, they don’t tell you how many calories is in each piece. But we all know bread is full of calories. The nice people at the restaurant keep refilling your basket, and everyone at the table is enjoying it, except maybe your friend. It takes a lot of willpower to avoid the temptation of the appetizer, especially when it keeps coming out over and over. If you notice your friend not taking anything, try giving them half of yours, or maybe even sticking some on their plate. I’ve been tricked into taking food many times because my friend “couldn’t finish it”, which is another great tactic.
The word chubby hurts, to me at least. It brings to mind pictures of fat little cherub babies, which is not a great picture to have of yourself when you have an eating disorder. I ask people to avoid making comments on my body period because if someone’s going out of their way to call me skinny I know they’re just being patronizing, but if they’re calling me “cute and chubby” I know they mean I’m fat.
Avoid comments on your friend’s weight (which is also just a good rule for being polite—who runs around talking about everyone’s weight? that’s rude), and bring up genuine compliments instead. Feeling fat and feeling ugly are a big part of eating disorders—you think if only you could lose ten pounds more, you would be pretty and thin and happy, and everyone would like you. It’s important to show your friend that you value them at their current weight and that they have attractive traits no matter how they see themselves. Compliment them on their makeup, their work, their jokes, whatever it is you genuinely love about them.
It helps a lot to hear that your friends appreciate you, no matter what, but it’s especially helpful when you have an eating disorder. My self-worth is often only dependent on how much I weigh, or how thin I look that day, so hearing positive remarks that aren’t about that are greatly appreciated.
Self-deprecating remarks are par for the course with an ED. I sometimes can’t help making an offhand negative comment about my thighs or stomach. If you hear your friend being overly cynical about their appearance, something not to do is to degrade yourself in an attempt to make them feel better—if you weigh less it’ll only make them feel bigger, and if you weigh more it’ll just make them feel guilty.
Try to just steer the conversation from it, or make a positive comment. If your friend says their face looks fat, say something about their makeup or their cheekbones. If they say their thighs look too big in their shorts, say that you like those shorts, or remind them that thighs are the best way to crush a man’s skull. In addition to self-deprecation, your friend may just make comments about their weight. If you find that your friend is obsessing over their weight, or constantly bringing it up, they may be looking for validation from you- I know I don’t have to say this, but please don’t agree with them if they say they’re fat. Disagree if they insist on the topic, and shift the discussion to their positive traits. They will hang on to your words, and I regretfully tell you that no matter what you say, they’ll still probably think they’re overweight. Saying nice things hasn’t ever suddenly cured anyone’s disorder, and that applies to eating disorders as well, but it can help. A little bit of positivity and support over time can go a long way to helping someone with an ED.
I found a good way of managing my eating was to become a vegetarian. It allows me to be picky about what I eat and to pay close attention to nutrition labels without anyone asking questions. But that is one of the reasons why I said I was semi-recovered at the beginning of this article because that’s a terrible way to think. Do not suggest diets, or vegetarianism, or veganism, to a friend with an eating disorder. Focusing that much on ingredients and food intake is extremely dangerous to someone with an ED and could cause a serious relapse or decline in their progress. It is a slippery slope, because on one hand, someone who isn’t eating very much at all may see a restrictive diet such as vegetarianism as an exciting way to monitor their eating and will end up eating more, but they may also use it as a way to cut their eating in half.
If your friend is a vegetarian, try to offer them vegetarian options when you guys are out. Plan ahead and make sure that if you’re going to be eating with your friend, they at least have the option to eat with you too. Many Thai, pizza and fast food chains now offer vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free meals, so going to those places is a really easy way to accommodate a friend. If a friend is considering a major diet change, it is important to make sure they’ll still be eating. Remind them that cutting out meat and dairy doesn’t mean cutting out everything, and try to keep an eye on what they eat.
If a friend is going to great lengths to hide their disorder—carrying around Tums and excusing themselves to the bathroom to throw up or being very particular about what they eat in front of who—do not tell people. You shouldn’t go around airing people’s personal business anyways, but this especially. You might think you’re doing the right thing by making people aware so that people can act accordingly around your friend, but if they want people to know, they’ll say so. It’s a very personal and embarrassing thing to share with someone, and the worst thing you could do is betray their trust. I have many friends who still don’t know that I have an eating disorder and some of those who do don’t know all the ways it has impacted me (fingers crossed they don’t read this article and show up at my house with questions). Don’t go over their head to their parents either, unless it is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. If someone told you about their problem and not their parents, there is a reason. It isn’t for you to decide who should and shouldn’t know about an issue that isn’t personally yours.
Try to take note of your friend’s triggers or things that are happening in their life that may affect their eating. If they say they don’t have time to eat because they’re studying or doing homework, offer to help them with it and try to get them to eat with you. If their significant other is stressing them out and it’s causing them to cut down on food, kill their significant other. (Don’t actually, but relationships that hurt a person in that way are extremely toxic and you should support your friend in any way possible in that scenario—remind them that a significant other is not the center of the universe, that anyone who makes them feel like they shouldn’t eat isn’t good enough for them in the first place, that there are other people out there for them and they’re pretty great on their own. No murder, though.)
If you notice that a certain topic triggers their eating disorder, make a note of it and try to help them avoid it. If you notice they don’t like to eat in front of certain people, try to steer those people away when your friend is eating or going to eat. If you find people saying negative things to your friend, they will internalize it, so defend them. People often don’t realize if they’re being harmful, especially if they don’t know the person has an eating disorder—a well-meaning remark like calling someone “thick” or “squishy” is taken in a completely different way than intended when the person you’re speaking to hears both of those words as negative.
Some people have physical ticks to help them fight hunger. Skin pinching, cheek biting, scratching, and nail biting are examples of things you may notice a friend doing. These are ways to distract them from hunger and to stop them from eating. You can help stop that by giving them something else to do with their hands or making them speak so they can’t bite their cheek or nails. You could offer them food, but they may decline and that would only make them feel worse. I suggest the indirect route of inviting them to play a game or holding them in a conversation, any kind of distraction you can offer them that doesn’t involve harming themselves anymore. Of course, if you can get them to eat, that’s obviously the ideal situation.
The most helpful thing you can do is just be there for your friend and know what they need. It may help in some situations to say someone looks thin, or to make a comment about what they’re eating, and it may not- it all depends on the context and who the person is. I’m sure you know your friend better than I do, but if you notice patterns in their behavior that make you suspect they have an eating disorder—or if you know they have one—it can be extremely beneficial to them if you take that into account from time to time. I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing friends that know about my disorder, accommodate me as much as possible, and I still struggle. It obviously helps to have the support of friends, but that isn’t a cure-all for any disorder, so if you notice your friend’s state is declining, or if you feel like they may need extra help, you can check out the National Eating Disorders Association or look up clinics in your area that can offer you specific advice.
Feel free to comment below any other resources or helpful tips, and if anyone is looking for help personally with their own disorder or with a friend, you can find my contact information in my bio below the article. I am always available and will offer any help I can.