What Should I Say? Tips for Talking with a Loved One Who Has an Eating Disorder


Rev. Dr. Kevin T. Coughlin Ph.D., Editor in Chief, Addicted Minds & Associates

The two most important things that a family member or friend can do for anyone that they care about who displays signs and symptoms of possibly struggling with an eating disorder are to express concerns in a loving manner and supportive way [1].

Don’t wait until a great deal of physical and emotional damage has happened; it’s important to confront the person as early as possible to help minimize damages. Never confront the person in front of others, that would shame them. Ask the person when the best time would be for a personal conversation; set the time, and find a nice quiet place without distractions where you can honestly communicate your concerns.

When the time comes, communicate honestly from the heart, sharing your concerns about your friend or family member’s eating behaviors. Be specific about the facts that you have witnessed; tell them that you’re concerned that there is a health problem that needs to be addressed by a professional. If you are comfortable to do so, offer your assistance with the appointment and transportation.

If your friend or family member is in denial, avoid any conflict or argument. If they don’t acknowledge that there is a problem, restate your feelings and concern. Leave the door open for future support if they aren’t ready for help now. Don’t play the guilt and shame game, or make accusations. Stay away from giving advice and simplified solutions.

No One Size Fits All Approach

Driends spending quality time togetherRemember that there is no “one size fits all” approach to talking with individuals with eating disorders. It’s important to be prepared by educating yourself with as much information as possible about eating disorders. Because of life’s distractions and stressors, it’s possible that the person may not know that they have an eating disorder. You should be prepared to deal with both anger and denial from the person [2].

Choose Your Words Carefully

It’s important to utilize the proper choice of verbiage in your communication with the person. Using “I” statements works best. Make the person feel safe and comfortable. Never rush the conversation with your friend or family member. Remember that the most powerful communication skill that we all have as human beings is active listening, listen respectfully, let them know you won’t judge or criticize. Encourage self-expression about feelings, so that you can understand them better. Continue to be supportive throughout the conversation and suggest professional help when appropriate.

It’s About Emotions

Focus on feelings, not food. Don’t imply any form of blame on the person through language, remember use “I.” It’s important to listen more than you talk, even therapists listen more than they talk. Remember that you are not a counselor or therapist. Don’t manipulate with words of guilt, or threaten the person.

It may also be helpful to talk with a professional about eating disorders yourself, to increase your knowledge and understanding of the problem.

Group of friends spending time togetherThere is an emotional element to all food addictions. Most who suffer from eating disorders cope with overwhelming emotions of depression, guilt, and shame. They feel that they are not good enough, faulty, they don’t measure up, and are ashamed of how they look and feel. Low self-esteem and a constant need for validation and love are omnipresent [3].

Eating patterns are usually formed in childhood and women have their own challenges, that’s when compulsive overeating typically begins. Food is used as a way of blocking out painful emotions, instead of dealing with stressful situations in effective and healthy ways [4]. Some compulsive overeaters use body fat as a protection from former sexual abuse situations, feeling that the excess fat makes them less attractive and, therefore, less likely to be abused in the future [5].

Dieting in most cases only exacerbates the condition. Dieting can lead to feelings of deprivation, further binging, continued feelings of guilt, shame, and depression. This becomes an unending cycle until the emotional reasons for binging can be resolved. In addition to the emotional element, there may also be a physiological addictive element [6].

The Big Three

Three friends huggingThe three most common eating disorders are binge eating disorder, anorexia, and bulimia. An individual who has one of these disorders will go to any length to hide it. Restrictive eating behaviors, skipped meals, avoiding eating, being dishonest about eating, starving themselves, binge eating, purging, using diet pills and laxatives, exercising, consuming massive calories in one sitting, vomiting, always seeing themselves as fat even when they’re skin and bone. Make no mistake about it these eating disorders are very serious illnesses [7].

If you think that a friend or loved one may be suffering from an eating disorder, educate yourself about the eating disorder. Talk to the person in a loving and supportive manner, let them know how much you care. Have treatment resources available, should the person make the choice to get help. If you feel unsure about the process, call a professional in the field, and they will be happy to assist you.

Reverend Dr., Provincial Superintendent Kevin T. Coughlin PhD., is an International Certified Master Addictions Coach, specializing in Drug & Alcohol abuse addiction recovery & family recovery coach, gambling addiction, Life coaching, Christian Coaching, Case Management, Prevention & Relapse Prevention, Lama, Ethics, Spirituality, Sexual Addiction, Anger Management, Domestic Violence Advocacy, Interventionist & Life Recovery Coach, Licensed & Ordained Minister. He is Founder & the Spiritual Director of New Beginning Ministry, Inc., a residential addiction recovery program. He is an instructor at The Addictions Academy and the President and CEO of Phase II Christian Coaching, LLC.
He has been awarded a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Counseling, Master’s Degree in Christian Counseling, and Doctorates Degrees PhD, DCC, DDVCA, DLC, DD, and is a Board Certified by DIT Seminary IN Christian counseling. He is an Associate Professor at Dayspring Christian University and a Board Member, and has been approved by the Board for a year of study to be consecrated a Bishop at the Florida Conference next year.


[1]: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/what-should-i-say
[2]: http://www.nedc.com.au/what-to-say-and-do
[3]: http://www.psychologistanywhereanytime.com/addiction_psychologist/psychologist_addiction_food.htm
[4]: http://www.timberlineknolls.com/eating-disorder/binge-eating/signs-effects/
[5]: http://whyeat.net/about-disorders/compulsive-overeating/
[6]: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/eating-disorders/helping-someone-with-an-eating-disorder.htm
[7]: http://www.psychguides.com/guides/how-to-find-help-treating-an-eating-disorder/

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 28, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com