One of the most powerful aspects of someone’s recovery from an eating disorder is support from others, and that support starts with some basic understanding. Clinical eating disorders may involve restrictive food intake, binging, purging, avoidance of adverse tastes or textures, or some variation or combination of these symptoms. All of these disorders are dark, evil sources of distress, causing sufferers to feel trapped in food obsessions, energy deficits, exercise compulsions and indescribable anxiety.
Because I have walked down this road personally, I want to share ways you can help your friend.
When you first suspect a friend is suffering, consider Jesus’ example of initiating conversations and asking questions. He asked over 300 recorded questions in the Bible!
When you suggest a get-together, avoid meeting in a place where food is the main focus, such as a restaurant or coffee shop. On my journey to wholeness, I always enjoyed spending time with friends watching movies, playing games or getting our nails done. When you are together, you may say, “Is everything okay? I’ve been concerned about you.”
Depending on your friend’s initial response, you may also gently ask if your friend is feeling a lot of stress about food or exercise. Sometimes your friend will be ready to answer you. If so, your job is to listen and be prepared to validate whatever emotions she may be experiencing. If she is seeking professional help, point your friend to treatment at a reputable website such as https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/toolkits. This website provides valuable information for parents, educators, coaches, coworkers and family members about signs, treatment and how to choose a treatment provider.
However, don’t be surprised if your friend’s response is defensive. If that’s the case, it is best not to press. Over the course of my illness, perhaps the biggest blessing I received was a friend’s ability to see me as just me. Not someone with an eating disorder, not someone who needed to be “fixed,” but somebody just enjoyable to be with.
One of the most important pieces of advice I give to loved ones is that your desire for your loved one’s recovery, though understandable, is not the most significant force necessary for change. If the person suffering from an eating disorder is not ready to make changes, your job is to pray hard while loving and modeling normative behavior around food and exercise. When I was ready to seek help from my eating disorder, it was my choice to initiate that conversation topic.
If you are waiting and praying for your friend to wake up to her own need for help, understand that the causes of an eating disorder are not as simple as you may think. Eating disorders are not the fault of the person suffering, her family and friends or even the image-obsessed society we live in.
Sure, all of these factors may play a role, but the source of self-deceptive and self-destructive suffering is rooted in the Deceiver, the devil who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). When your loved one stubbornly fights any offer of help, remember that the disorder is arguing with you, not your loved one. On the cross Jesus cried out to God the Father “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In a similar way, addressing an eating disorder requires us to care for loved ones who are hurting, for they do not know what they are doing.
In my long and difficult recovery from an eating disorder, I experienced much healing from those who modeled normative relationships with food. When my mother realized I had a problem with food intake and body perception, she showed her support by a healthy focus on food and exercise.
Mom avoided a fitness focus in conversation, such as tracking her steps or the amounts and types of food she ate. She even began incorporating occasional fast foods and sweets into her diet along with a variety of fruits and vegetables. She showed me there was no need to be fearful of the food in front of me: a slice of pizza could provide nourishment, as could a meal of roasted chicken, brown rice, Brussel sprouts and sliced avocado. God has given us a body to process and handle all types of ingredients, and we can trust Him to sustain our body’s needs.
Just as my mom modeled normal eating, you can avoid treating food like a “frenemy” when you are around someone with an eating disorder. Phrases about food like “trying to be good” and “cutting carbs/fat/junk” only reinforce a “good/bad” dichotomy about food. In the mind of someone with an eating disorder, eating “bad food” or “junk” means “I am bad, lazy and uncontrolled.” The next time you share a meal with family or friends, pay attention to the language and attitude toward food at the table. First Timothy tells us “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:3-4).
If your loved one has acknowledged her disorder and is seeking treatment, your job is checking in with her periodically to ask how treatment is going, as well as what she needs from you.
Notice I did not say your job is to be a counselor, dietitian or medical provider. All three of these specialists were vital to my recovery, and all three have been trained on how to treat eating disorders and what research-based intervention works best. Professional caregivers were not (primarily) friends; my friends were the ones who stuck by my side and showed me what it means to have a life worth living—a life focused not on food, calories and exercise, but on friendship, family and—most of all—faith in Jesus Christ.
Your friend may not believe in Jesus, but you can pray for opportunities to share the redemption and hope He offers in every hopeless situation. He alone provides full relief from anxiety (see Matthew 6:25-34 and Philippians 4:6-7) and true freedom from self-destruction (see 2 Corinthians 3:17 and Galatians 5:13-14).
When your friend or family member is wrestling with an eating disorder, the journey to recovery is never easy. It takes someone with tenacity and extraordinary compassion to walk the journey by her/his side. Pray about your ongoing role in another’s recovery, and trust that God will give you the wisdom you need.
–Tanna Vayon is a PA in the Houston area who specializes in the medical management of patients with eating disorders.