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How to Talk to Someone with Disordered Eating Habits

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

Have you ever observed strange eating habits in someone close to you or wondered whether they might even have an eating disorder?

Diagnosable eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are clear indicators that there is an eating-related problem and some of these problems can lead to serious health problems, even death. But eating disorders are considered the extreme form of disordered eating behavior. Only 1 to 3% of the general population has a diagnosable eating disorder.

When we talk about disordered eating habits we’re describing a wide range of irregular or potentially unhealthy eating behaviors that cause a person to spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy on food, weight and body image.

Common symptoms of disordered eating include:

  • Obsessive calorie counting or preoccupation with dieting
  • Anxiety about certain foods or food groups
  • Satisfaction with self that is highly dependent upon body shape or weight
  • Excessive or inflexible exercise routine
  • A rigid approach to eating (only eating certain foods, inflexible meal times)
  • Frequent fasting or skipping of meals
  • Use of diet pills or laxatives to control food intake

A bigger problem than most realize

People with disordered eating habits comprise a much larger percentage of the general population. Some studies suggest that up to half of the population have problematic habits with how they eat. This includes various ways to restrict food intake, regular overconsumption and using food to cope with stress. Young people are especially prone to disordered eating patterns because they are faced with many pressures from parents, school, peers, and the larger culture and turn to or away from food to help them cope with the stress.

Disordered eating is also not easy to spot. It is often hidden behind all sorts of legitimate lifestyle and health choices such as vegetarianism, veganism, gluten-free, extreme sport participation, colon-cleansing, organic-only food, etc. It is often difficult to determine whether a person is simply very committed to their health and food choices or whether these choices reflect disordered eating habits.

It is often hidden behind all sorts of legitimate lifestyle and health choices such as vegetarianism, veganism, gluten-free, extreme sport participation, colon-cleansing…

Sensitively discussing eating patterns

If you suspect that someone you know well has disordered eating habits, here are four effective ways you can begin to talk to them about your concerns:

  • Focus on feelings and not food. Disordered eating is usually driven by emotion more than food choices. Too often the focus is on food without realizing that the root issue is the emotion. Help the person make sense of their emotion by asking questions about how they are feeling and what might be going on in their life that triggers the emotion that leads to food-related issues. The emotions most associated with food issues are fear, sadness, being out of control and overwhelmed.
  • Offer empathy not advice. Your best route to getting someone to talk about their food-related issues is through empathy not advice giving. Though it is tempting to offer advice, the person needs to know that you care about them first. Empathy is a great way to do this. It helps connect you emotionally and is validating without any judgment or countering. For example, if your friend tells you she’s not eating much these days because she’s under so much stress from work, you could say: “That sounds like a very difficult burden to carry. How does eating less help you to cope with the stress?”
  • Ask direct but sensitive questions to learn more. Some people can handle direct questions if they are worded in a sensitive, non-threatening way. For example, you might say, “I’ve noticed lately that you have been making some negative comments about your body and your weight. Have you noticed this? How do you feel right now?”
  • Instill value to promote self-esteem. Disordered eating is usually accompanied by a fragile self-esteem. Push against this tendency by looking for genuine opportunities to affirm that person’s worth. Focus your affirmations on their talents, morals and character. Be specific and genuine in your praise. At the same time, be careful in talking about their appearance, even when complimenting them.

Food, weight and self-esteem are not easy topics to discuss especially if you know that the person you have in mind already feels embarrassed or shame about these issues. But, that may be a good reason to begin talking about it: to help them become less embarrassed and move toward change. It takes courage to start such a conversation but it may be a blessing that you hadn’t expected. If you do choose to talk about it, the key to unlocking that conversation is how you approach them. If done with sensitivity and care, chances are good that it will go well and have a positive outcome.

Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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