Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist and am not trained in eating disorder treatment or prevention. I struggled with disordered eating/eating disorders for 12 years and I am now in recovery. My purpose behind writing these posts is to start the conversation about eating disorders, sildenafil which continue to be misunderstood and stigmatized, share my experience with those who have eating disorders or know others who do, and to hopefully give some clarity and understanding about these complicated and dangerous diseases. I also want to give hope that recovery is possible!
Trigger warnings: In all of my posts about eating disorders, I try to be very sensitive and avoid triggering language. However, the reality is that I am talking about eating disorder thoughts and behaviors and recognize that these posts could trigger people struggling with EDs. If you think that these posts could be the least bit triggering for you, please do not read them. The last thing I want to do is to set anyone back in their recovery process.
So your daughter, son, friend, roommate, wife, husband, sister, brother is struggling with an eating disorder. You feel helpless and don’t know how to talk to them or help them. And then comes the tension of meal times. Are they eating? How are they eating? Do they look distressed? What do I say? I can’t stop staring at them…
Let’s just get this out in the open—eating meals with a loved ones who is struggling with an ED can be very tense, stressful, and painful for everyone. Here are some tips to make these meal times better for everyone. Many of these things I learned while eating meals together with other girls in treatment—we had to seriously support each other through those meal times, but we all managed to get through each and every one of them. This advice is based on my own personal experience- I am not a psychologist and this advice may not right for everyone. I think most of my tips are probably applicable and helpful for most people with an ED, but EDs are so unique and different so don’t use this list as an excuse for not having a conversation with your loved one about what they would specifically find helpful.
- DO NOT talk about eating disorders at the dinner table. EVER. Don’t talk to your loved one about their eating disorder, about someone else’s eating disorder, or EDs in general. Don’t mention any ED behaviors, don’t talk about body image, low self esteem, or weight. Your loved one is being SCREAMED AT by their ED throughout their entire meal and they need you to help them get their mind off of their ED, not on it.
- DO NOT talk about the food you’re eating. Typically when people are eating food, they’ll comment on what they’re eating, they’ll talk about other food they’ve eaten in the past, etc. Don’t do it. I would suggest not even saying whether you like the meal or not. Just don’t talk about it at all. Do not talk about calories, fat, nutrition value, portion size, your new diet, or anything related to food! Your loved one is analyzing everything about the food they’re eating and they don’t need you to add to the conversation happening in their head.
- DO NOT talk about exercising or working out, going to the gym, participating in sports, burning calories, your new exercise regiment, your muscles, or anything having to do with your body.
- DO NOT talk about any controversial or stressful topics. Don’t get into arguments with other family members. Don’t talk about politics or religion. Anything that might make the conversation get at all heated has to be off limits. Trying to get through a meal is hard enough for your loved one—don’t add additional stress and tension to the situation with your topics of conversation.
- DO NOT stare at your loved one. They already feel self-conscious and know that you’re keeping your eye on them. Try not to stare—it will just make them feel more self-conscious.
- DO have continuous conversation throughout the meal. Think of light but interesting conversation topics and keep conversation going throughout the meal, trying to bring your loved on into the conversation. During our meals in treatment, we talked throughout the entire meal and if we could see that one person was having an especially hard time, we would intentionally try to bring them into the conversation, asking them specific questions to help involve them. This helps keep your loved one’s mind off of the food they’re eating.
- DO model good eating behavior. One thing that we talk about in treatment is the idea of matching the meals eaten by the healthy people around us. If you are not eating a healthy-sized, balanced meal, how can you expect your loved one to do so? I remember one girl in treatment sharing that she had a really hard time eating carbs, especially bread. Her mom would never eat bread during meals and this made it that much harder for the daughter to convince herself to eat bread. Then at one meal, her mom ate a piece of bread along with dinner. What didn’t mean much to the mom was incredibly significant for the daughter and helped her make good food choices for herself and eat bread with more ease. I know that sometimes dinner rolls around and you’re not that hungry, or you don’t like the food, or you’re on a new diet. However, you have the responsibility to model good eating behavior, meaning that you need to eat a full, healthy sized meal when you’re eating with your loved one. Yeah, I know it’s not fair, but eating disorders aren’t fair to anyone. Your loved one is watching you and noticing all the food you eat constantly, so make sure that you are modeling good eating habits and behavior.
- DO NOT get frustrated if/when your loved one is having a hard time. I can’t tell you how many times I cried during meals in treatment. Meals are harder than you could ever imagine—they are intense, anxiety-producing experiences. Most likely, you cannot understand why these times are so emotionally charged, and that can be frustrating. However, if you do things like roll your eyes or say things like, “just eat, it’s not a big deal!” or “you’re being silly/stupid,” you are being incredibly unhelpful. You need to be loving, supportive, and try to understand what it happening with your loved one. Sometimes it’s best to just sit quietly with your loved one, not saying anything but showing your support with your presence. Sometimes it might be helpful for you to ask your loved one what they’re feeling, and then listen without judgment or input as they share.
- DO have important conversations about meal times BEFORE meal times occur. For example, ask your loved one what would make meals easier for them. Make a game plan with them and their psychologist about how you’re going to handle meal times. If you’re having dinner with people who maybe aren’t as informed about good meal behavior, have a conversation with them before the meal and if things start getting into rocky territory during the meal, steer things in the right direction. If you have set expectations for the meal time–what will be eaten, what sorts of conversations you’re going to have, how you are going to support your loved one, you can at least ensure that everyone is one the same page and in the moment disagreements or misunderstandings are less likely to occur.
I hope these tips are helpful. Feel free to ask any questions/clarification points you may have in the comments below :)
If you want to learn more about eating disorders, click here to read more of the posts I’ve written on the topic.