Saturday, April 12, 2014

For the person supporting a friend or loved one with an eating disorder.

“How May I Help You?”
For the person supporting a friend or loved one with an eating disorder.
Michel D. Harris

After greeting each one of my clients, I always ask them, “How may I help you today?”  This simple, open-ended question is one of the most appreciated because instead of telling someone what they should do, I am offering assistance in achieving what my client perceives as important to reach her individual goals.  However, the limited time I have with each client requires an extension of that help from one or several individuals she trusts.  As a source of support to one recovering from an eating disorder, I encourage you to ask, “What can I do to help you?”  What if her reply is always “nothing” or “I don’t know?”  This article will provide assistance with how you can provide support when given minimal or no guidance.

1.  When recovering from an eating disorder, it is a challenge to be comfortable with weight restoration or accepting one’s current body size.  While you may think comments such as, “your face looks nice and full” or “you’re jeans fit good” are complimentary, the person in recovery may hear this as, “your face looks chubby” or “your jeans are too tight.”  Watching someone transform from a malnourished to healthy state is exciting, but instead of making comments related to body size and image, simply ask, “How are you feeling today?”  This shows you are concerned, yet leaves the chosen topic up to the recipient.  Also, as a source of support, avoid making negative comments about your or someone else’s body.  This is the type of behavior that those in recovery are trying to reverse into positive thoughts, and you can help by verbalizing acceptance of yourself and others.

2.  Have you ever experienced any “bumps in the road” when working towards a goal?  Most likely you have, so why would you expect it to be any different for someone recovering from an eating disorder?  There’s going to be days when she falls short with the meal plan or has a binging episode.  Allow that person to use the set-back as a learning experience, and offer positive feedback.  For example, instead of saying, “You were short two ounces of protein today,” communicate positive thoughts; “You met your exchange goals for four food groups today!”  To follow-up, you may ask, “What is your meal planning goal for tomorrow?”  This rewards the positive behavior, yet challenges the person to take another step forward.

3.  Who wouldn’t want to go out for pizza or ice cream?  Events that used to be enjoyable could be fearful for a person in recovery, and there are many reasons why this is so.  First of all, eating out means loss of control in regards to how food is prepared.  Secondly, the foods usually enjoyed at a restaurant are high calorie/high fat, which are avoided in the case of a person with anorexia or used in binge-purge episodes in those with bulimia.  Even though a person in recovery may have previously enjoyed going to a certain establishment, they will have to re-learn how to eat in social situations.  When presenting an invitation to eat out, ask the person where and when she would prefer to go.  This allows control of the situation, and may increase the person’s comfort level in a challenging situation.  Keep in mind that something basic like coffee or frozen yogurt may seem too safe to you, but serves as a starting point.  Once at the chosen destination, act in a manner that makes the person comfortable; don’t comment on what she orders, the quantity of the food served, or the amount of food she eats or does not eat.  When finished, ask the person how she felt about the event and thank her for her company.

In being supportive, it is also important to recognize when a relapse may or has already occurred.  If you notice that the person you are supporting has gone back to behaviors that were detrimental in the past, offer an ear to listen.  For critical situations in which a person is causing harm to self or others, help her seek medical assistance immediately.


Michel D. Harris is a Registered Dietitian with 14 years of experience as a clinical and outpatient dietitian.  Her areas of practice include eating disorders, weight loss and management, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and food allergies/gluten sensitivity.  As an exercise physiologist, she also assists individuals of all fitness levels in planning exercise programs.

At the Awakening Center, Michel provides individual nutrition consultations, as well as multiple group classes and workshops.  Individual sessions include the development of a comprehensive wellness plan that focuses on establishing a healthy relationship with food and exercise, as well as identifying and changing detrimental eating behaviors/patterns.  The nutrition counseling and mindful eating groups allow individuals to share and receive help with the recovery process via discussion of certain topics and activities.  If you would like to speak with Michel regarding your interest in any of her services, please contact her at 773-929-6262 x24 or

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