Supporting a Loved One with an Eating Disorder at Meal Time

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In a lot of ways eating disorders may resemble addiction. When we live in the home with someone with an addiction, we know that some things must change to better support our loved one in their recovery. I often work with families that would give anything to be able to help their loved one during their recovery process. While some families may have the best intentions, one of the things I find is that that may not know how to support their loved one. Despite their best efforts, at times this can be frustrating not only for those with an eating disorder, but for their caregivers as well. Recovery looks different for everyone, so keep in mind that what is helpful for one person may not always be helpful for another – and that’s okay. Below I have outlined some tips that you may find helpful when trying to navigate this process. Ultimately it takes all hands on deck and a troop of people willing to be there as part of the support system.

9 Tips for Navigating the Process

1. Sit with them. Sometimes your presence during a meal for support and accountability may be exactly what they need. Give them time to process how they are feeling around the meal (many may feel anxious) and encourage them to give themselves a minute to walk away if they need to so they can gather their thoughts.

2. Encourage them to advocate for themselves. Learning that recovery means not only having others advocate for them, but that they need to advocate for themselves is a huge step in recovery. Sometimes they may need to be reminded that they have a voice and it is okay to say to a trusted family member that “this is hard” and they may need help.

3. Be a promoter of structure. If your loved one was given a meal plan, then sometimes being offered food outside of the meal plan may not be helpful. Having structure, especially in the early stage of recovery, is key.

4. Build trust in the home. If you are preparing and plating your loved one’s food, then try to follow the meal plan that was provided as closely as possible. Their meal plan provides exactly what they need at their current state in their recovery process. At times, offering food outside of the meal plan may hinder their progress or even cause unnecessary anxiety. Building trust in the home with food is an important first step and can make dining outside of the home easier in the long run.

5. Don’t offer too many options. While variety is great, sometimes having too many options to choose from may be overwhelming. When giving options, keep the options to a minimum – example: chicken or beef.

6. Be patient with them. Meal time can often be a point of contention, but even more so when someone is struggling with eating disorder behaviors. Sometimes the most helpful thing is to just listen and encourage them.

7. Ask them what they need. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask your loved one exactly how they need you to support them during meal time. As noted above, this is a great chance for them to advocate for their own recovery. I would recommend having this conversation outside of meal time, as meal time may lead to heightened emotions.

8. Stand your ground. If your loved one is really struggling, sometimes this may be a difficult task – but probably one of the most important. Know that when you set boundaries and not allow for negotiating during meal time that you are doing your loved one a favor, even if it may be difficult and lead to disagreements.

9. Avoid diet and body talk at the table. Ideally, avoid diet and body talk in general in any way that could be compromising to your loved one’s recovery. This often means having to be hyper-aware of calorie and diet talk at the table. You may be surprised at just how often this kind of thing comes up in conversation around meal time.

As I mentioned earlier, the recovery process looks different for everyone. You will likely have questions that arise at some point in the process. The good news is you are not alone in the fight. Some great resources for information are physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, and registered dietitians. I think most would agree that the team approach is best in the healthcare profession --- that team involves you. You can be a source of information and play one of the most integral parts of the treatment team, as you are present around the clock. I often encourage families to seek support for themselves and not only for their loved one who may be battling an eating disorder. If you would like more information on how to support your loved one then visit the National Eating Disorders Association website at https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/.

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