This week (Feb 26- Mar 4) is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Despite popular belief, an eating disorder is not always easy to spot. There is a misconception that only thin people have eating disorders, but the truth is that you can have an eating disorder at any weight. In fact, people with bulimia tend to be “normal” weight. And people with binge eating disorder are often not recognized as having an eating disorder at all.

I won’t bore you with the diagnostic criteria for all of the different types of eating disorders, but remember that anyone can develop an eating disorder. The scariest part about eating disorders is that we usually lead secret lives and people don’t know – until it’s too late to intervene. Death from eating disorders (most specifically, Anorexia Nervosa) is higher than any other mental illness.

Here are some tips on how to help someone who you think might have an eating disorder.

Encourage the person to seek help. Don’t say, “just eat”. This implies a simplistic notion of recovery. Eating disorders are not just about eating, rather there are many emotional layers to uncover. If you are eating with someone who has an eating disorder, you can be a support by sitting with them and distracting them with conversation. If they’re struggling to eat, you can encourage by commenting on how food is like medicine, and how important it is to fuel your body for optimal health.

Read books that will help you understand what eating disorders are and how to help, not only the person you’re supporting, but yourself. Having someone in your life with an eating disorder can be stressful and it’s important to take care of yourself too.

Don’t comment on weight. Ever. Even if it’s meant to be a compliment. I think that in our society we feel like we have permission to comment on weight: “oh, you look fabulous, how much weight have you lost?” but this just enforces the idea that being thin is associated with attractiveness. If you’re worried about a person’s weight specifically, it might be more helpful to explain that you’ve noticed their behaviours with food rather than weight. It can be a very fine line because as soon as you stop asking the person if they have lost weight then they might assume they are fat. (I never said those of us with eating disorders are overly logical.)

Don’t comment on your own weight. I know we are all guilty of coming out of a changing room complaining to our friends about how the pants would look better if you got rid of thunder thighs. Stop judging others and yourself. You will even be surprised at your own body image gains.

Don’t comment on food! This one is HUGE. I have been in many situations where I’m out at a restaurant and someone inevitably comments on how big the portion sizes are. Immediately I feel guilty and like I shouldn’t eat much of my serving. Also, talking about dieting is not helpful. If you suspect someone has an eating disorder, avoid food talk as much as possible. Instead, focus on feeling healthy. For example, saying, “I went for a run and my fitbit said I only burnt 250 calories” can be triggering to people (even without eating disorders!). If you rephrase this and explain, “I love running in nature, it’s such an invigorating experience!” then you have taken the onus off of calories and weight.

I am writing this blog from the perspective of someone who has dealt with an eating disorder for two decades. I am making these suggestions from my own personal experiences. Although I am no longer triggered easily at this stage in recovery, I know that people trying to support their loved ones sometimes don’t know that what they’re saying is potentially triggering.

Remember, you can’t control your friend’s behavior but you can be a positive role model.

Above all, encourage your loved one to seek professional help. Simply put, eating disorders are dangerous.

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About the Author

Tara is a wellness blogger for the Local Biz Magazine who is in the process of writing her memoir on finding hope and meaning while living with a mental illness. Tara loves the concepts of positive psychology, incorporating them into every aspect of her life and spreading the message on the science of well-being.