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5 Comments to Avoid on Thanksgiving If Someone You Love Has an Eating Disorder

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For many, Thanksgiving is a time for joyful socializing and scrumptious meals with family and friends.

But this isn’t always the case if you have an eating disorder. When you’re struggling with food, the looming Thanksgiving dinner can leave you fearful and apprehensive. And when you’re already worried about getting through dinner, how others respond can make a huge difference.

As a counselor and someone who has personal experience with bulimia — and has made a full recovery — I know how hurtful a seemingly offhand comment can be.

Here are five comments you should avoid at Thanksgiving if someone you love has an eating disorder:

1. “You look really well.”

If you have an eating disorder the word “well” is often construed as a comment tainted with judgment around weight or size, even if unintended. It might be interpreted as meaning “weight gain” or “not being thin enough.” If your loved one is not feeling that “well,” it can be a confusing comment and detrimental to his or her progress.

2. “Have you gained weight since I last saw you?”

Comments about weight are not welcome and reinforce beliefs like, “I’m only acceptable when I’m a certain size.” It’s better avoid comments about weight all together.

3. “Is that all you’re eating?’

It may have taken an immense amount of courage for a person with an eating disorder to choose what to eat. Don’t comment if the portion isn’t what you consider “normal” or “enough.” When you place the person under the spotlight and comment on her eating, she may feel embarrassed, self-conscious and ashamed.

4. “I wish I had your willpower.”

Someone with an eating disorder would often give their right arm to break free from the shackles and rules of a restrictive and punishing eating regime — trust me. Praising this ability to deny the self, which to her has become so destructive and life-robbing, can be utterly perplexing and harmful.

5. “I’ve just started this brand new diet.”

Talking about your own eating concerns or desire for weight loss will only trigger unease and distress in your loved one. If you need to share your own eating habits, choose someone to speak to who will not be affected detrimentally.

To support your loved one, try to put the eating disorder aside and see the unique person beneath the illness. Talk about subjects unrelated to food and weight. Be warm. Be thoughtful. Be non-judgmental and kind.

If you get it wrong, apologize and move the conversation on.

When you’re supportive, it will help your loved one experience a more relaxed meal. Through this, she will gain confidence in her recovery in the area of social eating. Commenting on her eating might keep her more stuck and entrenched in the eating disorder, even though unintended.

Remember, she probably longs to have a healthier relationship with food, where social eating is a joy and a pleasure. When you take focus away from food, you’re helping her take another step along the recovery path.

Originally published: November 24, 2015
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