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Things You Should Know if a Loved One Has an Eating Disorder

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Eating disorders are incredibly complex.  Even people who have recovered from them, have a hard time understanding everything about them.  Each disorder is unique to the individual and with it comes its own unique set of experiences and issues.  It may be triggered by different events, and manifested in unique and yet peculiar ways.  If you have a friend or loved one with an eating disorder, you likely feel compelled to help them.  But you need to make sure that you’re not accidentally harming them.  I’m going to outline some extremely dangerous myths about recovering from eating disorders.

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Force Feed Them

If you’re dealing with someone who is anorexic, you may be alarmed at how thin they are. You just want to put fat on their body. So you might feel like you should just force-feed them. But eating disorders are rarely about looking good. The obsession with looking a certain way or controlling one’s caloric intake stems from a more complex, deeper issue. Adjusting the person’s physical body and food intake will not make the deeper issue go away.

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Send Them Away

If their eating disorder is nearly fatal, then they probably do need to go to a clinic to address the physical symptoms for now.  But many people with eating disorders should actually stay with their friends and family.  They need to take care of their school or career.  The feeling that their disorder has ruined their life, and taken things away from them can actually make their symptoms worse.

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Ignore It – It’s Just a Phase

Your friend with an eating disorder is not throwing a tantrum. She is not doing this for attention. So do not ignore her eating disorder, like you would the crying and screaming of an unhappy toddler. Let her know that you’ve noticed some changes. Don’t embarrass her or make her feel guilty. But just make her aware that you’re paying attention and you care. Being ignored could just make her get worse.

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Take Away The Scales

Taking a scale away from someone with an eating disorder could actually be quite dangerous. Because the person cannot monitor their weight, they may overcompensate by eating less, throwing up more, exercising more, or doing whatever behavior comes out of her eating disorder. You need to wean individuals with eating disorders off of scales. They cannot quit cold turkey.

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Don’t Allow Exercise

Don’t look at someone’s symptoms as some “bad” behavior, like a child chewing on the furniture, that you need to condition out of them. The behavior is just a symptom. If you take away their means to reveal that symptom, they will find another way, like purging or starving themselves. You need to get to the root of the issue.

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Assure Them They’re Gorgeous

The person with the eating disorder may already know they’re gorgeous. But they may believe their attractiveness relies on them keeping up their eating disorder. Or, they may be dealing with some other emotional issue that makes them indifferent to their appearance entirely. Again, it’s never about the aesthetic.

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Indulge It For Now

While you should try to be understanding of your friend with the eating disorder, you should let her know, to some degree, that she is behaving strangely. In other words, don’t just accept the fact that she insists you have dinner at 5 pm because she needs to work out by 7 pm to be in bed by 8 pm. Let her know that you, too, have a schedule and needs that you have to meet.

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Tell Them It’s Dumb

It’s not dumb. It’s not silly. It’s not vain. It’s not even within the person’s control. To call an eating disorder dumb is like calling a fever or a cough dumb. An eating disorder is just a group of symptoms that result from mental illness, ranging from depression to anxiety to post-traumatic stress syndrome.

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A Healthy Weight means a Recovered Person

Just because someone is back to a healthy weight doesn’t mean they are recovered. Feeling emotionally and mentally stable means they are recovered. A person can maintain a healthy weight while still going through an immense amount of internal turmoil.

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Take Bad Food Out of The House

If you’re dealing with a binge eater, you may just try removing bad foods from the house. But they always have Postmates. They can always just walk to the liquor store that has all the candy. Has taking away a heroin addict’s heroin ever stopped him from seeking out more? No, in fact sometimes they’ll just go to dangerous lengths to get the substance.

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Just Don’t Let Them Throw Up

The person will find a way to throw up, even if you monitor the bathroom. They’ll throw up out the window or in a shopping bag. Or they’ll turn to starvation. Always, always, always get to the root of the issue rather than trying to treat the symptom.

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Get to the Source of the Emotional Issue

People with eating disorders typically need psychologists more than they need nutritionists or personal trainer. In order to work through an eating disorder, you need to be able to figure out what issues are triggering it.  A nutritionist is unlikely to be able to unpack your issues for you. Only a therapist can.

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Once it’s Over, it’s Over

A person is never really recovered from an eating disorder. For them, the symptoms are like a smoker’s cigarettes or a drinker’s cocktail—these are the things they return to in times of extreme stress, even if they don’t want to.

 

 

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