Compulsive Overeating: Helping Someone You Love
By Laura Lange, LCSW
As important as support from loved ones can be, the most frequent question I get as an eating disorder professional is this:
How can I help my loved one overcome compulsive overeating?
Binge eating disorder — or "compulsive overeating" which is what a lot of my patients call it — is often shrouded in shame, secrecy and isolation. For those trying to overcome binge eating, support and connection from loved ones isn’t just helpful, it’s a cornerstone on the path to recovery.
Compulsive overeating: How can I help?
Figuring out the best way to help another person in recovery can be frustrating. Sometimes, even though we are desperate to help, our first instincts actually backfire on us!
Here’s an example:
A natural urge — when trying to help someone with a history of binge eating — is to offer “solutions.” Perhaps you have some ideas on what has helped your friend in the past. Maybe you are thinking of suggesting a diet or exercise program. However, diets and exercise programs won’t help those recovering from compulsive overeating.
In fact, diets make binge eating behaviors worse!
Dieting when you already have an eating disorder only exacerbates the eating disorder pathology — making the eating disorder stronger.
Another instinct that may backfire is this: well-meaning family members and friends often think, “If I just encourage my loved one to try harder and have more willpower — they could overcome this binge eating.” Unfortunately, what some might call a “lack of willpower” doesn’t have much to do with willpower at all — binge eating disorder is a serious eating disorder.
When it comes to eating disorders, one cannot just use “willpower” to change their behaviors or habits.
So, what can you do to support a loved one in recovery? I’ll get to that below, but first, I’d like to define binge eating disorder — for those new to this topic.
Is compulsive overeating a problem?
Binge eating disorder (BED) is both a misunderstood and underdiagnosed, serious eating disorder that requires specialized eating disorder treatment by trained professionals.
Binge eating disorder symptoms typically include:
- Eating significantly more food in a short period of time than most people would eat under similar circumstances
- Eating marked by a feeling of a loss of control
- Eating when not hungry and/or eating alone
- Feelings of guilt, embarrassment, or disgust after eating
Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States and it has genetic and neurobiological components. Through research, we know that genetic factors play a big role in the development and onset of eating disorders, including BED. Neurobiological components of BED can influence hunger and satiety cues as well as how we feel, think and behave around food.
Because of these genetic and neurobiological components, people that suffer from BED can choose to learn specialized behavioral tools and skills to manage their behavior. And, as they do this hard work in recovery, you can help. Here’s how:
1. DO educate yourself on binge eating.
As a loved one, it is important to learn as much as you can about binge eating disorder, including the basics of recovery. This will help you support your loved one in a way that is in line with their eating disorder recovery.
Read Eating Recovery Center expert blogs on binge eating.
2. DO watch out for diet talk!
Avoid talking about diets, body image, and food. Don’t ask your loved ones to diet with you. Don’t talk about the latest diet fads. Don’t make comments about your — or someone else’s — body or weight, even if you think you are saying something positive. Seemingly harmless comments like, “You are losing weight!” or“Why do you have an eating disorder? You look great!” can be extremely triggering.
DO identify other ideas, hobbies, or interests to talk about. DO shift conversations away from appearance, weight, and body image.
3. DON’T use “shaming” language.
Words can hurt. Could you unintentionally be trying to “motivate” your loved one to change by using weight-shaming language or comments? Comments like, “You don’t need that dessert!” or “Did you gain weight - you looked so much healthier and happier last year!” might be perceived as helpful and motivating to you — but they probably won’t do much to help change someone’s behavior. In fact, these words may increase feelings of shame — ultimately making eating disorder behaviors worse.
Instead, DO identify helpful, supportive words instead. DO get in the habit of complimenting your loved one’s personality, accomplishments, and successes — not their appearance, body image, size, shape or weight.
Read about the link between binge eating and shame.
4. DON’T fall into traps!
At times, we may feel so desperate to help our loved ones that we fall into certain traps, like:
- Creating timetables or threats: “If you binge again, I will take away your car…” or “If you binge again, you can leave my house and live on your own!”
- Comparing our loved one to others: “You could have it so much worse; at least you don’t starve yourself or have cancer!”
- Trying a “scared straight” approach: “You are going to kill yourself if you continue to binge like that” or “All of your friends are going to leave you.”
- Telling them how they must be feeling: “Don’t feel sad – you have so much going for you!”
5. DO support your loved one using validation.
Your goal when validating another person is to prove that you understand them or “get it.” A simple way to validate someone is to highlight the emotion your loved one might be feeling and say it out loud to them.
Instead of saying, “I understand why you feel angry but it will turn out fine,” try, "I can understand why you are angry because you really wanted that job, because you feel like you meet all of the requirements for the position, and because you feel like the harder you try at things like this the further away you get."*
To validate your loved one, you must also listen to them without judgment and seek to learn more about their experience. As you listen to your loved one, you may even want to tell them, “I want to understand how this is affecting you.”
Validating someone does not mean that you agree with them! It is, however, communicating that you understand their emotions and that you are supportive of them and their experience. Validating confirms to your loved one that they are not alone, and you are there for them during a difficult time. Warning: this might be difficult — so practice validating your loved one’s words, emotions and experiences and do it often!
*This tip on validating others and using the word “because” comes from Emotion-Focused Family Therapy’s Emotion Coaching module. To learn more, check out www.mentalhealthfoundations.ca.
6. DO consider family therapy.
Eating disorders are complicated and require specialized, individualized treatment! Family therapy may help you figure out ways to support your loved one in eating disorder recovery and explore connections and relationships on a deeper, more personal level. Know that family therapy interventions work best when attending family members are ready for collaboration — not when members are forced or threatened into going to therapy.
7. DO implement and respect healthy boundaries.
Boundaries are critical when supporting a loved one in recovery. You can learn how to set healthy boundaries — and respect when your loved one sets boundaries with you. Discuss setting healthy boundaries in your family therapy sessions along with ways to improve your relationship. A healthy amount of space and limits within a relationship helps both parties get their needs met.
Read about healthy boundaries and how to create them in your life.
8. DO consider your own therapy.
You may be participating in family therapy, but you can also choose to see your own therapist. Professional support from someone who is knowledgeable about eating disorder recovery can help you understand your loved one’s challenges, setbacks, and potential relapses. Therapy can also help you cope with and manage your own difficult feelings and life experiences. If you have trouble finding a therapist, consider a support group, either online or in person.
Join our private Facebook community for family members of those in recovery.
9. DO practice self-care yourself.
Supporting someone with a serious eating disorder like BED is difficult and can bring up feelings of hopelessness, depression, fear and guilt. It is important to practice self-care as a support person. This will help you feel energized and rested. Simple steps like taking a relaxing bath, listening to music, or taking some time for yourself are helpful to help maintain your balance.
10. DON’T try to solve your loved one’s problems.
Fact: You can’t fix someone else’s eating disorder!
It may be frustrating to realize that your loved one's eating disorder is not something you can fix. So, this is my final advice for those of you who are concerned about someone who is binge eating: try not to “fix” their problem. This is a tough one, I know, especially for parents who have always been in the “fix-it” role. I always say to the friends and family members of patients, if you could fix your loved one’s eating disorder, you would have already… it just doesn’t work that way!
Another problem with trying to fix your loved one’s eating disorder or offer advice is that it pushes you away from them and it may be perceived as judgmental. Also, for most of us, it is frustrating to give “advice” or offer a solution to a problem that ultimately will not be followed; this can create resentment or anger on both sides. As family members or friends, we might want to fix other people’s problems in order to alleviate our own anxiety. Let the professionals take this one on.
Final thoughts on binge eating
As a final note, make sure your loved one is in specialized treatment for their eating disorder if they haven’t sought treatment already. We know that people with BED typically do not feel like they are “sick enough” to qualify for eating disorder treatment. But I’ve seen it with my own eyes:
MANY people struggle with — and can recover from — binge eating disorder.
As friends and family members, it’s so hard to watch someone suffer. We want our loved ones to be happy. If you can practice the suggestions above regularly, you will be making a major difference in supporting your loved one as a family member or friend, and this will certainly make a difference in their recovery.
Laura Lange, LCSW is Director of the Binge Eating Treatment and Recovery Program at Eating Recovery Center, Illinois.