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Communicating With Someone Who Has an Eating Disorder


By Columnist Eleni Psillakis – Eating Disorder Educator and Filex 2016 Inspiration Award Winner:

Communcation helps to overcome an eating disorder

Photo Credit: Communication is the Key to Overcoming an Eating Disorder by Eleni Psillakis 2016 –

Communication involves both listening, speaking and observing. From the research I have done and from the conversations I have had, many people assume that a particular body shape suggests a person is suffering from an eating disorder. But, who is to say what body shape suggests an eating disorder?

Assuming only extremely thin people have an eating disorder is a misconception. The best indicator of an eating disorder is how someone communicates. Watch their body language and how they behave. If we could place a recorder inside the mind of a sufferer of an eating disorder, then we would hear their ‘self-talk’ which is constant, and this is what needs to change.

Observing Eating Disorder Behaviours

With this in mind, listening to conversations and observing behaviours, is the starting point of our communication. The most common signs of an eating disorder are as follows:

  • Look for an ongoing change of mood. This change is the first sign that a problem is developing.
  • Listen to the labelling of themselves and food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
  • Watch for repeated expressions of feeling guilty for having eaten something or having skipped a workout.
  • Observe of any negative comments about one’s sense of worth.
  • Notice changed behaviours such as avoiding meal times, making excuses for eating and picking at foods. You may also witness extreme anxiety around eating, preoccupation with diets, recipes, exercise regimes and avoiding social situations.

Understanding How to Communicate with an Eating Disorder Sufferer

When I suffered from anorexia, my sense of worth focused on how well I adhered to the destructive patterns of excessive dieting and exercise.  Communication about food, body weight and exercise were a threat to my sense of worth. Many comments and questions created so much anxiety. For instance, “Just eat. Don’t you like food? Why can’t you eat like everybody else?” I wanted to let go of my struggle with eating, but I feared this would take away my sense of identity, worth and control. It was constantly battling in my mind.

I feel this struggle for a sufferer is not understood well enough for others to communicate effectively with that person. For instance, many people, including parents, do not ask the sufferer about their feelings. Instead, they question a sufferer’s actions or compare them to other people. They may also choose to avoid the situation altogether.

An eating disorder is like an elephant in a room, everyone can see it, but no-one wishes to discuss it. You also need to consider that without positive communication and discussion, other factors such as social media, the internet and peer pressure will influence a sufferer. They will be listening to this banter, and this will NOT be helping them. Therefore, it is important to begin the conversation about any behaviours as soon as possible.

Starting a Conversation About Eating Disorders

Some key points for the first conversation:

  • The sooner the first conversation begins, the better the chances of addressing for behaviours.
  • Don’t be judgmental or critical; remember a sufferer is judging themselves enough every day.
  • Remember that eating disorders are complex mental health issues.
  • Choose your words carefully. Avoid terms like ‘clean eating’, a ‘good diet’, and a ‘bad exercise session’ as these will cause havoc for someone whose self-worth centres on their feelings of not being good enough or feeling dirty about themselves.
  • Let the person know you care for them and that they can talk to you at any time.
  • Be ready for a negative reaction initially. It doesn’t matter how they react, just let them know you care.
  • Talk about other interests that they may have neglected.
  • Focus on positive qualities that do not revolve around food and exercise.
  • Do not place emphasis on food, body weight and exercise. The sufferer is already focusing on these issues enough.
  • Encourage them to seek help and that you will be there with them every step of the way.
  • Seek out information from organisations such as the Centre for Eating and Diet Disorders, Eating Disorders Victoria, The Butterfly Foundation and the National Eating Disorders Collaboration.

The Crucial Eating Disorder Conversation

The most important conversation is the one going on in the sufferer’s mind. This self-talk is constant and no one hears this but the sufferer so it manifests destructive behaviours. Therefore, psychological help is a must.

Just remember that the scale of an eating disorder does not decide the speed of recovery. The way a person values themselves, loves who they are and their sense of worth is a better indicator. The sufferer needs to move beyond judging themselves based on diet or exercise.

In my course “an Insight to Anorexia Nervosa for Fitness Professionals”, I cover these aspects in more detail, along with identifying and how to manage a client with an eating disorder. This course is also beneficial for parents and friends of eating disorder sufferers. Visit www.brazengrowth.com.au/shop to register for this workshop on November 19, 2016, at the Australian Institute of Fitness, St Leonards Campus.

About Our Eating Disorder News and Review Columnist – Eleni Psillakis

IMG_0727Combining over 27-years experience in the fitness industry, education and a lived experience of eating disorder, Eleni Psillakis is raising awareness of eating disorders as serious mental illnesses. In this time as a group fitness instructor, personal trainer, secondary and tertiary educator, she is aware of the fine-line that may be crossed from healthy to unhealthy diet and exercise habits.

Using resistance training to gain weight to her 39kg frame at age 19, Eleni physically recovered and went on to compete in women’s bodybuilding. However the underlying emotional issues and thought patterns resurfaced 25-years later when her marriage broke down and she was diagnosed with clinical depression. Antidepressants and 8-years of psychological counselling, assisted with unlearning of negative thought processes that Eleni had of herself for most of her life. These were nothing to do with body image, but self-worth.

Resistance training again helped the process of stopping her thoughts racing during this time of depression and she stepped back onto the competition stage gaining a top 3 place in her division for each of the 5 competitions since. It was the psychological help that has made the difference this time around.


In 2016, Eleni received the ‘Inspiration Award’ at the prestigious FILEX health and fitness convention, an event that recognises excellence within the industry. Eleni won the award due to her commitment in promoting awareness of eating disorders and dedication to educating others in how to overcome feelings of self-loathing.


An Insight to Anorexia and Other Eating Disorders for Fitness Professionals”, a seminar that Eleni has written, has been approved by Fitness Australia for continuing education.

Eleni Logo

Disclaimer: The information published in this column are based on the author’s own professional and personal knowledge, and opinion. This information and opinion are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any manner. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition and consult a qualified medical professional before beginning any nutritional program or exercise program. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on InShape News.

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