Saturday, April 6, 2013

How to Be an Ally to Someone Recovering from Disordered Eating

You might not know that you know someone who is in some stage of recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating, but the statistics imply that you probably do. It's estimated that 24 million Americans suffer from some form of disordered eating or eating disorders, from bulimia to anorexia to binge eating to chronic overeating to the disease I suffered, orthorexia—and then some.

If someone close to you has acknowledged and begun the hard work of repairing their relationship with food, you might be scared, sad, confused, even angry at them—which is totally okay. There are a lot of feelings involved, and can be an awful, complicated situation for everyone: It's hard to know what to do or say without hurting feelings, ruffling feathers, or unintentionally stalling progress for the sufferer.

Drawing from my own experiences (and from the myriad reading I've done on the topic), I thought I might compile some basic, hopefully helpful hints for anyone hoping to show a friend, lover, family member, acquaintance, or coworker that you are trying your best and want to help, not harm. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I'm not any kind of trained professional on the topic. What I am, however, is a person who has worked myself through a long period of disordered eating, and I've learned the hard way—not only did I learn about myself, but also about other people's fears, qualms, and missteps in the face of their loved ones' struggles.

I'd love to hear from other folks in recovery what they think allies and advocates can do to be better friends to us, and I'm sure our loved ones will as well. Please to share them in the comments, and feel free to pass this post around if you think it might do even one person some good.

Most of all, remember that no one wants to do the wrong thing, and everyone is trying their best: You can learn to be a better ally often by simply listening.

Tips after the jump.

Yup? Nope.

How to Be an Ally to Someone Recovering from Disordered Eating

Try to remember that your own body issues are not about them…
Your desire to lose or gain five pounds does not universally mean that everyone needs to lose or gain five pounds, and what you might imagine as the "perfect" version of yourself and your lifestyle is not necessarily something with which your recovering friend would agree for himself.

The fact that you are five pounds over your target weight does not give you carte blanche to remind your recovering anorexic friend how lucky he is to be skinny or have such "great willpower," for instance. 

You might feel a little jealousy about the weight loss or weight gain that your friend has achieved either through his disordered eating or by way of their recovery, but you are not jealous of your loved one's disordered eating itself. The compulsive eating habits that seem like such fun or so impressive to you from the outside are an absolute hell for the person who is struggling with them, and you do not want to emulate them or act envious of what they are going through.

No, trust me. This shit is the pits. You can lose your five pounds quietly and without adopting self-harming food-control strategies. Do not ask your anorexic friend for weight-loss advice.

…and don't make their body issues about you.
Someone who has disordered eating is probably not in a place where she is able to worry about the five pounds that you want to lose or gain, and she is not using their own body issues as a way of testing, shaming, or reaffirming your own willpower or self-confidence. Disordered eating is a an illness, and, well, a disorder: As such it's pretty selfish and myopic by nature, and has nothing to do with how much you as a nonsufferer happen to succeed or fail in meeting your personal goals.

You do not typically have to feel judged by your recovering friend. Your friend is probably too busy trying to work out of self-hatred and self-judging that she doesn't even notice what size your jeans are or what you're eating for lunch. Let your friend be selfish for a moment, and to be focused on herself: Salvation from this disorder might depend on that freedom to be selfish.

Consider restaurants carefully
Many folks who are working through disordered eating find it difficult and/or profoundly anxiety provoking to navigate restaurant menus, especially in the earlier stages of recovery: Perhaps the food that is available is triggering, or doesn't meet specific nutritional needs the person has. Maybe the person feels on the spot having to order in front of other people, or is embarrassed to have to specify dressing on the side or extra meat or whatever is necessary.

The best things to do when trying to act as an ally in restaurant situations are are to: 

(a) Be conscious of your loved one's needs without transferring the responsibility or burden onto them as a way of making things easy on you. Don't force your friend to always choose the restaurant, or remind her that she is the one who needs special attention—and certainly please try not to make the person feel guilty that you had to go to this restaurant because of her needs.

That said, if there is a restaurant that you really want to to go to that you worry might not be a good fit for your recovering friend, speak to him or her privately and gently about it. You still have the right to go to restaurants that you enjoy, but I'll bet that you'd like to make the experience comfortable and fun for everyone: Perhaps suggest that your friend in recovery look at the menu and let you know if there is anything she sees that meets her needs. Offer to call the restaurant and make a special request on her behalf—pretend that it's your own request, rather than your friend's, if you really want to earn bonus points.

At the very least, make it okay for your friend to think of herself: Tell her that you would love for her to join you at the restaurant even without eating or drinking anything there, and that you just want to be able to spend time together having fun.

(b) Try not to make a fuss over what the person does or doesn't order when you're out together. In some cases, a person in recovery might eat before or after meeting friends at a restaurant to avoid the anxiety that the menu might cause—which is another thing you can helpfully suggest if there's a particular restaurant that you want to go to that you know is problematic.

Perhaps the person is afraid of the comments that well-meaning friends might make at a restaurant dinner table, and so is more comfortable eating alone and out of sight. They might even do this to spare your feelings, or to ensure that they can be part of a group without feeling on the spot.

(c) Consider not going to a restaurant at all! Sometimes the best way to eliminate food and body-image pressure is to avoid situations where they might arise or present an issue. Making time to spend with your recovering friend in a food-free space like a local park or an art gallery or a movie can show that you appreciate the concerns and struggles your pal faces, and that you care about making her feel comfortable, safe, and loved.

Make an effort to curb body-judging statements, either about others or about yourself
Actually, this is a pretty great idea for anybody, not just folks who are around recovering loved ones. The less you give in to the insidious messages we're constantly being given about what body perfection and beauty is in this culture, the better we'll all be to accept the way we all look, feel, eat, act, and interact.

If you find yourself worrying out loud—even in a joking way—about eating that cookie because you'll "pay for it later," or if you lament about your too-skinny "chicken legs," you're sending a message about what bodies should look like, and that there is some level of perfection that exists in regards to beauty or appearance standards, and it suggests that falling short of those ideals is more or less inevitable.

Think of it this way: Other people find you attractive, and your constant belittling of yourself serves only to make those people feel silly or ashamed for the way they feel, as though you know something they don't, or as though they are unable to express their own aesthetic preferences and desires. There is all kinds of attractiveness in this world, and you have some of it whether you like it or not. Just try to accept yourself on some level, and keep your friend's struggles in mind as well.

Try focusing on positive self-talk, and pointing out the safer physical aspects of other people's appearance that you do like, such as their funky pants, great haircut, or interesting accessories. (Appreciate the same in yourself; it is way more pleasant to feel excited and proud of a new manicure or a favorite sweater than it is to hate on your body all the time. Trust me.)

Even though I know you're just trying to be nice, please fight the urge to make even positive-seeming comments about the person's body
In fact, don't comment about the person's body at all. Or any person's body, for that matter: Your body is your own problem, responsibility, and concern, and you have no right or reason to judge anyone else's, for better or worse.

Remember that in many cases, other people's judgments—even positive-seeming ones—are what put your loved one into a pattern of disordered eating in the first place. What sounds like a reassurance to you might actually be triggering to the person who is recovering: To someone who has been starving himself because of a fear of gaining weight, being told it looks like he's "put some meat on those bones" might seriously undermine the work he's done to make peace with gaining what might be much-needed weight. That kind of setback can undo all kinds of progress in folks who are struggling to make headway in their treatment.

Losing weight and gaining weight are perfectly personal experiences, and are not up for comment.

(Side note: Also never, ever touch a person who is in recovery from disordered eating without permission. Resist to urge to poke at the places on a person's body where he or she may have lost or gained weight recently. This sounds obvious, but you might be surprised how often it happens.)

As a nonsufferer of disordered eating, your dietary restrictions and choices are valid and interesting and I'm sure very much on your mind as you navigate your way through life, but maybe you can keep them to yourself sometimes?
Let's imagine a scenario: Say you're eating a picnic lunch with a friend of yours whom you know is in recovery from disordered eating. You're chatting, laughing, having a great, relaxed time—until your friend pulls a turkey sandwich from his bag. "You're still eating bread?" you say to your friend. "Don't you know how bad gluten is for you?" Your friend looks at the sandwich, feeling humiliated, nervous, anxious, and sad. He might suddenly feel as though he's failed, or as though he's doing himself harm. He might feel like he's kidding himself about recovery, and that it's impossible to do the right thing, or that he will never get well again.

The moment is gone; the damage is done.

Of course you'd never do this, because you're not, you know, a schmuck. But a lot of people do do this, and they don't even realize it. Part of becoming a better ally is to realize that the things you say have impact, they have meaning, and they can harm as well as they can heal.

If you've decided to go gluten-free for one reason or another, that's seriously great. Good for you! Remember that your dietary decisions are yours and yours alone, and they do not necessarily stand as universal truths. Your friend is trying to overcome a host of food fears and prejudices, and that's enough to swallow (if you'll pardon the choice of words) without having to also navigate and be influenced by other people's fears and prejudices and choices.

Please, please, feel free to personally avoid carbs for the rest of your waking days, and to believe that they are the worst thing that has ever happened to the human race. But also recognize that some people like, consume, and even need carbs, and that carbs aren't poison. Don't assume that your choices are the only right ones.

Similarly, if you aren't a registered dietitian or have been personally and directly asked for your opinion and policing of the recovering person's diet, please don't offer the service
It's really easy to tell other people they're doing it wrong, and we're all guilty of it in a zillion small ways. But these well-meaning tidbits we are forever espousing aren't always received the way we want them to, and can be hurtful, dangerous, demeaning, condescending, and yes, occasionally even wrong. People in recovery are often seeing one or more professionals who are helping to define and identify nutritional guidelines for them, and while pseudo food science is fine in most casual conversations between two friends, when one of those friends is climbing out of disordered behavior, there is no "casual." Everything is crucial, everything is loaded, everything has deep meaning and deeper implications.

One day maybe your advice will be welcome again when you're in the company of your recovering pal. I hope it is. But until that day, take it to the Internet. You can say anything you want about your food beliefs on the Internet. People on the Internet love that shit.

This one is really important, so I'm going to put it in red: Never, ever, ever say, "One bite won't kill you."
Seriously. Please. Don't ever do this. Disordered eating is real, it's dangerous, and it's deadly. If you have not suffered from it, it can be very difficult to understand the kind of fear, shame, and self-hatred that comes along with it in its many forms. In some cases, yes, it is a matter of life or death: We can't always know the depths to which anyone has sunk with relation to food and body-image, and to diminish and belittle that fact is so profoundly hurtful that I find it hard to even write about here.

If you are at a party or around a table where many people are sharing dessert, and your friend who is in recovery is not partaking of the dessert, do not point it out to the group. Do not mention it. Do not bully your friend into taking "just one bite." The person is not waiting for your permission or your peer pressure to suddenly dive into that molten chocolate cake. That kind of pressure is not going to help her overcome her struggles.

Just think of it as there being more dessert for you, and move on.

Above all, please don't give up on the person you love, or be too discouraged to spend time with or send love to them 
Recovery is a long, lonely, terrifying, embarrassing, and difficult process, and it is the time when most folks with disordered eating need as much support and encouragement and gentleness as possible. If you find it hard for your own personal reasons to be physically present for someone in recovery, consider writing a note, sending a small gift (a copy of your favorite book is a nice one; I also like sending little unexpected quirky gifts like vintage handkerchiefs or buttons), or simply somehow showing that you have love and respect in your heart for the person as they work so hard to get better.

And, finally: Thank you
Thank you for standing by us, for loving us, for trying to understand even when it's hard or frustrating or disappointing. Thank you for letting us not be perfect all the time, or always make the right decision.

Thank you for seeing the person beyond the food, the personality inside the body. Thank you. You're a g-ddamned hero. I mean that.

What else do you think would be helpful for allies of folks with eating disorders?


  1. Very good post Meister.
    One of my coworkers has very disordered eating and is very much in denial. It's difficult to know how to help. Her health is deteriorating and she's under medical supervision now (after 20+ years of avoiding doctors...) so hopefully her eating will be addressed soon. One cannot live on animal crackers and pepsi alone. :(

    1. It's hard to know how to address someone who hasn't yet realized or accepted that he or she has a problem relationship with food: I certainly know from my own experience that well-meaning comments can often drive a person further into disorder before offering the intended relief and support.

      One thing I wish is that someone had taken me aside for a long, quiet, loving conversation about it out of concern: Much of what I received were one-off comments (e.g. "You're too thin," or, "That's all you're going to eat?"), and they were too easy to shrug off or even get angry at.

      In the end, however, I don't think it's your responsibility to break the cycle of denial for your coworker. What you CAN do is try to be as positive about her as possible, and encourage non-body and non-food related discussions in her presence. Maybe go out of your way to compliment other things she does well? Build her up a little bit: She probably needs it.

      You're a good person to care, Alaina. I'm so grateful there are people like you on our side.

  2. Meister, this is an excellent article—thank you for your thoughtful and honest ideas and suggestions on this complicated topic. My closest friend is raising twins—they're 2 years old now—and trying incredibly hard to raise them without the food issues that she and so many of us came of age with, so this topic has been on my mind. Though the kids don't have disordered eating now, I'm asking my friend to read this article because it will arm her well as she continues to try to raise them to be mindful, healthy, and joyful eaters.

    1. Thank you, Sarah! Raising kids to have positive self-images and healthy relationships with food is so difficult, I can only imagine; I wish your friend the best as she forges her way through the tricky jungle of child-rearing. I wish every child got the chance to feel empowered to go through life with a command over this stuff, but I know it's not possible. Having a strong support and repair system is sometimes the best we can ask for.

      Cheers to you and to your friend for trying to remain mindful, thoughtful, careful, and, above all, loving.

  3. You continually impress me not only in your compassion for the trials people go through, but in the way you evaluate the paths that people take to arrive at their own decisions. You manage to craft statements about these journey's that are both personal and universal - not an easy task. Further more, you have the unique and impressive ability to flip your perspective around and look at things from a view point that may be contrary to your own.

    As you know, I relate to a lot of what you've written here, and I appreciate that you've taken the time to write it out. I often find myself wishing I could refer back to our conversations on these topics, so it's nice to have a reference at the ready!

    Anyway, thanks for this.

  4. As a certified nutritional adviser I work with people with diet quite a bit and can say for sure that it can get tricky very quickly. I appreciate your insights and comments.

    1. Dana T, thank you for helping people through the difficult times in their lives, and thank you for your patience, kindness, and understanding. I hope that you are able to spread the word of being an ally to folks who struggle to find a working relationship with their bodies and with food, and I appreciate your taking the time to read this missive.

      G-dspeed you, Dana T!

  5. Thanks so much for your perspective on the issue of food disorder recovery: I've done a lot of reading about people with eating disorders and it's really helped me to understand how to be compassionate to people for whom food is not just a taste to enjoy, but a complex tangle of personal associations and emotions. I'm one of the lucky ones, I guess; despite a lot of negative messages about food and my body I received growing up in the 80s, I never developed an eating disorder. And despite suffering periods of intense stress in my adult life, where my appetite disappeared for weeks at a time and my weight plummeted, once the stress lifted, my appetite came back and I was able to enjoy a normal relationship with food. Considering all this, I'm really lucky. And I'm really glad you mentioned that weight loss or gain are not something to be publicly commented upon - there is nothing that makes me feel more uncomfortable than people noticing a change in my body. I mean, of course everyone has a body, but I hate the implication that a body that's lost weight is somehow better and more worthy of being complimented than a heavier body. Oddly enough, there is some connection between the advice here and advice about how to relate to people who struggle with excess weight - neither should one comment upon, poke or shame these people's bodies or dietary choices, place them in food situations they find triggering or embarrassing, or make their issues about one's own food issues, since no one has ever been shamed or embarrassed or provoked into a healthy diet and happy body image. This is not intended to minimize the unique situation of ED recovery where personal interactions around food are much more crucial, but to emphasize that adopting such an attitude towards food and body image in general can potentially help the people around us feel more comfortable about their diets and bodies.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this. I cam across this site because of the name (love it! It basically summarizes my development as a cook!), and was immediately struck by the first entry. I am still in recovery after a relapse with bulimia and touches of orthorexia and over consumption of alcohol for the wrong reasons. Very few of my friends know this, which makes social gathering particularly hard for me. I could not agree more with the "One bite won't kill you" statement. They always say "You are skinny, eat something" or "Just have a beer with us". I can't tell them "If I eat that I will go home and eat a whole tub of ice cream" Or "I can't just drink 1 beer, it will turn into 7". The real kicker is that I was actually my skinniest when I was eating healthy and didn't have my disordered eating habits (before my relapse). Everyone would make little comments suggesting that I was anorexic. What was I supposed to say? No, I'm not, because I was in the past and it didn't work?

    Also, a note to all the women out there. The thing that triggered my relapse was working with a group of women who contently talked about calories. I had a coworker who called me and her "Fatties" because we took more than 45 minutes to eat lunch. I had another coworker yell at when she looked up how many calories were in the soy nuts I shared with her because she was hungry. This is the environment we create for each other, and it breeds disordered eating. Food isn't about calories and fat, it is about energy and flavor, and that was something I forgot.

    Thank you for being brave to share your personal thoughts on a very personal matter, and I hope this really helps people understand better. Alcoholics can avoid alcohol, meth addicts can avoid meth, people with disordered eating can't avoid food. The only path to recovery is a supportive network.

  7. This post just demonstrates how individual ones needs are in recovery. Had my friends and family adhered to the advice provided, I would probably be dead. That is not an exaggeration. At multiple stages in the process of recovery (though Not Always), I needed to be 'bullied' a little (sometimes more than a little), to be made uncomfortable, to be shocked and shaken as equally as I needed to learn to accept tenderness and administer it to myself. First, to get into the hospital, then, to eat, then, to trust time and my body, then, to see my flaws without letting my self-perception choke me. Much of the pressure and discomfort coming from friends' and family's behavior forced me to find a strength within, a core of self, I had disconnected from entirely. The challenge to take 'just one bite' literally saved me, and tough love pushed me periods of extreme dysmorphia and depression. When they tiptoed around the disorder, it only enabled it prolongation. Another bite won't kill you was actually a phrase that enabled me to see what WAS killing me and EXPERIENCE LIFE in a way that moved beyond my stomach and my individual being, continually pulling me into the world beyond, providing perspective and reminding me of all that exists imaginatively and physically once ones mind is freed from counting energy consumption and expenditure.

    For allies: Realizing that every individual's disorder functions in a unique manner, and that recovery must be a tailor-fit process that will morph over time is a necessary foundation to providing support. Doing whatever it takes to discover along with the individual suffering from the disorder how it manifests, what triggers are for disordered thoughts, and what triggers movement away from disordered thoughts, not matter how uncomfortable. Patience, and the ability to be a cheerleader while still being honest.

    1. A GREAT response and a great perspective: You're absolutely right that recovery is an entirely individual thing, and that each person's needs are different. The post is certainly not intended as a one-size-fits-all recommendation, but rather a bit of a gentle reminder to allies—who can sometimes be frustrated and angry as a result of their very real fear and concern—that there are certain "tough love" statements or goadings that actually read as terrifying aggression, challenges, or worse to the person suffering. Just a bit of an Inside Baseball perspective for those who might be searching for ways to reach out to a friend or loved one.

      In any event, I'm so glad that you sound like you've come to some agreement with your body and made some peace. That is huge and commendable, and I congratulate you and everyone on your support team. Here's to a happy and healthy!


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