Have a positive conversation? Yes, you can.

Holding back on talking to someone with an eating disorder? Worried about what to say – or making things worse? This is understandable, and very common. A person with an eating disorder is likely to already be feeling isolated. So approaching them, rather than avoiding the topic, is a good step in the right direction. What to Say and Not to Say has been created especially for you. It is a guide on what you can do to create a positive, supportive conversation with someone who has an eating disorder.

If you haven’t already…
Read: 2. How to Start a Conversation About the Eating Disorder.

Things to Avoid

  • Avoid judgement
    When talking with a person struggling with an eating disorder, avoid being critical. They are already trying to manage their own strong self-criticism. Positive support helps the most.
  • Avoid personal comparisons
    Unless you have had an eating disorder yourself, avoid giving advice based on your own experience. Most of us have experience with overeating (e.g. Christmas time) and then dieting and/or doing some ‘get back into shape’ exercise regime. This may have been relatively easy for us to achieve. But an eating disorder is a mental illness. Transformation is not just a matter of embracing common physical solutions like diet and exercise.
  • Avoid trigger topics
    When having a conversation with someone who has an eating disorder, it is recommended to steer clear of the following topics:
    – weight
    – appearance
    – food
    – calories
    – diets
    – being perfect

Things you can do

  • Active listening/Motivational interviewing
    Ask questions, listen and then feed back what you have heard. It strongly recommended not to jump in to find the solutions but meet and stay with them where they are at.
  • Take the focus off food and weight
    The person with the eating disorder is already likely to be over focussed on food and weight issues. It is recommended to talk about other subjects where possible.
  • Introduce positives
    Try to talk about things you like about the person:
    – personality (e.g. kindness to animals)
    – strong skills and abilities (e.g. ability to do puzzles)
    – their smile, their laugh
    – how they are a good friend, mother, worker etc
  • Interest areas
    Talk about general areas that they are interested in (not involving food or significant exercise).
  • What engages? What closes?
    While talking, pay attention to what engages the person. And also what conversations or words shut them down. Learn from each conversation. You can also ask them straight out what topics to avoid so they feel more comfortable with you.
  • Social engagement
    Encourage and invite them to be part of social situations that are not focussed around food or significant exercise. Go to the movies, the beach etc.
  • Be aware of moments of clarity
    When the person with the eating disorder has a moment of clarity about their situation this can be a significant turning point in their recovery. Positive reinforcement of moments of clarity can be helpful.
  • If you need to talk about the condition…
    Externalise the condition. For example you can say: “Is that the eating disorder influencing you?”. This helps to motivate change, decrease the risk of the person feeling judged and clarify in your mind that the person has a disorder and it not them being ‘difficult’.
All this said, there may be times when just ‘being there’ without a lot of conversation is the best support you can give. As long as they know you are aware and care about their situation, and are open to talking about it supportively.

Talk it through with…

Eating Disorders Association’s counsellor:
07 3077 7320 Monday – Thursday 9-4pm (Queensland only)

5 Ways to be an Ally to Your Partner’s Eating Disorder
This article gives some good insights and thoughts on helping your partner through recovery.
EverydayFeminism.com [US]

Read Article Here

How to Support a Friend
A two-page fact sheet with a section on what to say
Butterfly Foundation [AUST]

Read Article Here

Below are videos of people talking about the experience with eating disorders. They might help you gain further understanding and ideas about how best to approach the person you are concerned about.

Please note: Watching other people discuss their experience with eating disorders can be distressing and triggering. If you need support call:

Imogen and Danielle share their personal experiences of eating disorders stigma
This video is helpful for friends and/or extended family members of someone with eating disorders.
Butterfly Foundation [AUST]
YouTube: Length: 3.17min

Below are 2 clips demonstrating the skills of motivational interviewing (ref: Quick Tips in this section) using the scenario of parents and a therapist.
Produced in conjunction with the Eating Disorder Team at the Maudsley Hospital, London.
Note: Some people find these clips a bit frustrating and robotic – be warned!

Motivational Interview – Clip 3: Conflict
Motivational Interviewing, with emphasis on reflection, conflict
C&M ED Productions for Prof Janet Treasure [UK)
YouTube: Length: 5.49min

Motivational Interview – Clip 4: Autonomy For Change
Motivational Interviewing, with emphasis on reflection, autonomy for change
C&M ED Productions for Prof Janet Treasure [UK)
YouTube: Length: 8.01min

Groups and Support – available in SEQ.

Family Information Group Attend this one-day seminar with a range of speakers (people with lived experience, a carer, general practitioner, dietician, therapist, etc.) talking with family and friends of people with eating disorders.
Find out the next seminar:  EDA ph 07 3077 7320, admin@eda.org.au or visit http://www.eda.org.au./

Skills-Based Learning Group for Carers and Families affected by Eating Disorders
This 6 week group aims to help carers understand more about eating disorders and ways to support recovery, learn and practice helpful communication skills, develop positive coping strategies, and foster a healthier relationship with their loved one.  For more information and registration details, EDA ph 3077 7320, admin@eda.org.au or visit http://www.eda.org.au./

Talk it through with…

Eating Disorders Association’s counsellor:
07 3077 7320 Monday – Thursday 9-4pm (Queensland only)
Butterfly Foundation Support Services Monday to Friday 8am – 9pm AEST

  1. ED HOPE 1800 33 4673
  2. Web counselling thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/web-counselling
Or encourage your loved one to call The Eating Issues Centre on 07 3844 6055 for information and support (Tuesday – Friday 9-4pm).
If you would prefer to email we will respond to you during office hours mailto:admin@eda.org.au