Eating Disorders: What to say & not to say

Have a positive conversation? Yes, you can.

Holding back on talking to someone with an eating disorder? Worried about what to say – or making things worse? This is understandable, and very common.

A person with an eating disorder is likely to already be feeling isolated. So approaching them, rather than avoiding the topic, is a good step in the right direction.

What to Say and Not to Say has been created especially for you. It is a guide on what you can do to create a positive, supportive conversation with someone who has an eating disorder.

If you haven’t already..
Read: How to Have a Conversation About the Eating Disorder

Quick Tips

  • Avoid judgement
    When talking with a person struggling with an eating disorder, avoid being critical. They are already trying to manage their own strong self-criticism. Positive support helps the most.
  • Avoid personal comparisons
    Even if you’ve had a lived experience of an eating disorder yourself, avoid giving advice based on your own experience. Most of us have experience with overeating (e.g. Christmas time) and then dieting and/or doing some ‘get back into shape’ exercise regime. This may have been relatively easy for us to achieve. But an eating disorder is a mental illness. Transformation is not just a matter of embracing common physical solutions like diet and exercise.
  • Avoid trigger topics
    When having a conversation with someone who has an eating disorder, it is recommended to steer clear of the following topics: weight, appearance, food, calories, diets, being perfect.
  • Active listening/Motivational interviewing
    Ask questions, listen and then feed back what you have heard. It is strongly recommended not to jump in to find the solutions but meet and stay with them where they are at.
  • Take the focus off food and weight
    The person with the eating disorder is already likely to be over focussed on food and weight issues. It is recommended to talk about other subjects where possible.
  • Introduce positives
    Try to talk about things you like about the person:
    – personality (e.g. kindness to animals)
    – strong skills and abilities (e.g. ability to do puzzles)
    – their smile, their laugh
    – how they are a good friend, mother, worker etc
  • Interest areas
    Talk about general areas that they are interested in (not involving food or significant exercise).
  • What engages? What closes?
    While talking, pay attention to what engages the person. And also what conversations or words shut them down. Learn from each conversation. You can also ask them straight out what topics to avoid so they feel more comfortable with you.
  • Social engagement
    Encourage and invite them to be part of social situations that are not focussed around food or significant exercise. Go to the movies, the beach etc.
  • Be aware of moments of clarity
    When the person with the eating disorder has a moment of clarity about their situation this can be a significant turning point in their recovery. Positive reinforcement of moments of clarity can be helpful.
  • If you need to talk about the condition…
    Externalise the condition. For example you can say: “Is that the eating disorder influencing you?”. This helps to motivate change, decrease the risk of the person feeling judged and clarify in your mind that the person has a disorder and it not them being ‘difficult’.

This being said, there may be times when just ‘being there’ without a lot of conversation is the best support you can give.

As long as they know you are aware and care about their situation, and are open to talking about it supportively.

On Video

What to say & not to say: Video Playlist

Assistance for carers, and understanding how to approach conversations.

View playlist on YouTube here


How to Support a Friend. A two-page fact sheet with a section on what to say, by the Butterfly Foundation.

Download here


Reach Out

If you need help, reach out.

If you need assistance, or are interested in any eating disorder services, get in touch.
We can help with more information, referrals and/or arrange an assessment appointment.

Call us on (07) 3844 6055 | email us here

You can also contact us through Eating Disorders Queensland

Eating Disorders Queensland 89 Sherwood Road, Toowong Qld 4066