Battling an eating disorder is exhausting–and it isn’t made any easier when friends, family or peers are constantly asking hurtful questions or offering misguided advice. If you’re approaching someone who has told you they have an eating disorder, read on to find out 7 important questions not to ask.
- “Are you sure? You don’t look like you have an eating disorder!”
Seriously, this should be common sense—but unfortunately, it’s not. Eating disorders do not discriminate when it comes to body shape, size, gender or identity. The media’s stereotypical image of a waif-thin blonde girl is not representative of all individuals with EDs.
Under the DSM-5—the guidelines which medical professionals reference when diagnosing mental illnesses—patients no longer have to be underweight to receive an eating disorder diagnosis (except for anorexia nervosa, in some cases). Additionally, not all eating disorders are restrictive-type. An eating disorder that is being diagnosed more often is binge-eating disorder, which shares traits with bulimia, where the primary trait is frantic over-eating.
- “So, it’s just a diet?”
No. Just… no. While some individuals with eating disorders do follow strict eating plans—such as Paleo or vegan—this is not just a “diet”. A 2016 US study from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) says that those who diet moderately are 5 times more likely to develop an ED—and 18 times more likely, if they practiced extreme restriction.
That’s why calling eating disorders “diets” is so dangerous. It minimalises the fact that eating disorders are mental illnesses that need professional intervention to overcome.
- “If you want to lose weight, just work out and eat better! Have you tried that?”
Individuals with eating disorders are already extremely self-conscious—the last thing they need is someone subtly saying, “Losing weight is more important than getting better.”
Health is not equated with weight. An individual with anorexia being underweight would be skinny, but not healthy. Likewise, an individual hitting the gym everyday to negate that day’s caloric intake is not a healthy person—mentally or physically.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses; as such, they aren’t going to just “go away” with a bit of positive motivation. The best thing that you can do, as a friend, is to support that person with an ED and not mention their body. Don’t tell them they should lose weight, or give them tips to do so—even if you think you’re giving them “healthy” advice. Praise their personality or their brain, and stay away from physical attributes.
- “Can’t you just call this a ‘cheat day’?”
The idea of food being “wrong” just feeds into an eating disorder. NEDA reported that 95% of those who lose weight on a diet gain it back within 1-5 years. Making food “off limits” except for these so-called cheat days just reinforces the idea that food is either good or bad, and can trigger binges in some folks with EDs.
It’s better to support your friend in whatever food option they pick, and don’t push them to choose any food they’re not comfortable with eating.
- “Why do you have an ED? I don’t see anything wrong with you.”
A majority of ED side effects are internal, or manifest in ways that an outsider would not pick up on. Individuals who aren’t consuming enough energy may be constantly cold, grow extra body hair to compensate for the cold, stop menstruating, have a heart arrhythmia, or an eroding oesophagus from stomach acid.
Additionally, NEDA says that self-harming behaviours may occur co-morbidly with eating disorders. This can range from self-injury to binge drinking to being sexually promiscuous.
Even if you do not see the side effects, do not assume they’re not there.
- “How can you have one? Only teen girls have eating disorders, and they grow out of them.”
This is extremely false—anyone, regardless of age, gender or identity, can have an eating disorder. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
NEDA reported that ED symptoms are starting earlier and earlier in all genders, and that at any given point, “0.3-0.4% of young women and 0.1% of young men will suffer from anorexia”—and 1% of young women and 0.1% of young men will be bulimic. These statistics don’t even include binge-eating disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or other specified feeding or eating disorder.
- “Is your ED really a bad thing? You could stand to lose weight.”
This isn’t an exaggeration—people genuinely think this way. Unfortunately, this weight-shaming does nothing to spur healthy dieting, and paves the way for disordered eating.
NEDA has reported that of overweight individuals, 40% of girls and 37% of boys are bullied because of their weight. This leads to less interest in physical activity and socialisation—and an increase in psychological turmoil, including negative body image and depression.
Ultimately, weight is just a number. What’s going on inside our bodies is important, and we should feed ourselves healthfully, but weight is not a direct indicator of health. Unless you are a doctor directly consulting with a patient who has asked for advice on losing weight, there’s no reason to tell someone to lose weight. You end up doing far more harm than good.
For more resources on eating disorders, visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.