In Ask the Trail Sisters, Health

I think my trail sister is struggling with an eating disorder.

 How can I address the topic and help her?

PC: Chris Hunter


trail-sister-heidi-kummHeidi: This one is tough + your response really depends upon how well you know your friend. If you’re close friends; ask them directly if anything has changed in their life lately or if there is anything you can do for them. Even a direct question about the changes you’ve noticed may be appropriate, depending on your friendship. If you’re more of an acquaintance with them, it may be best to ask general questions about them [their health, their emotions, their personal life] + gauge your next step from there. Many people struggle with maintaining their weight for a variety of reasons beyond the psychological challenges of an eating disorder. It is a very rough place to be + it may feel awkward being direct about it; however, they may desperately need that direct question to put everything into perspective. At the very least, make sure they know you are there for them, no matter what. Avoiding judging [even as you ask] + offer as much support as you can. Also, be prepared for them to become defensive and/or angry with you. Don’t take it too personally, they are dealing with a lot as well.

trail-sister-maria-dalzotMaria: If you are worried that your trail sister is struggling with an eating disorder, it is important that you voice your concerns, offer support and encourage treatment. You may be afraid to confront her, but people struggling with eating disorders are often scared to ask for help. The sooner your sister gets help, the better the chances are for recovery. Have the conversation during private time and it keep calm – like out on the trail! Explain why you are concerned without being critical or judgmental. Be patient and supportive especially if the result is denial and defensiveness. Make it clear why you are concerned, that you care for her and that you will be there for her whenever she is ready to talk about it.

Deserae Clarke Deserae: Wow, this is a tough one. I think the first thing to keep in mind is that if it truly is an eating disorder, it’s best for your friend to get professional help. That being said, I think you can be part off her support system. Talk to her about some of the things you noticed, approaching it in a nonjudgemental way. Sometimes when we get “rewarded” for weight loss with better performance, compliments, etc. it’s easy to get caught up and loose sight of what is healthy and unhealthy. Maybe with a gentle nudge from you she can correct her habits, or make the decision to seek help.


trail-sister-bree-lambertBree: Eating disorders are sensitive territory. As someone who struggled with anorexia in my late teens AND having a teenage daughter (currently) who struggles with the same disorder…IT’S TOUGH!!!

I would suggest encouraging her to seek professional help. Typically eating disorders are the result of some deep rooted emotional problem that needs to be addressed. There are very skilled counselors who can assist in uncovering what might be driving her desire to either binge or restrict.
The best thing you can do is be a friend and support her in a balanced way. Don’t feed her food phobias, offer any negative criticism about how she looks, suggest extensive bouts of training , or praise her for the size 0 jeans she may be wearing at this time.

trail-sister-ashley-hunter-arnoldAshley: I’m so sorry to hear that your sister is struggling with an eating disorder. It’s not an easy situation to be in. I struggled with one for over a decade and have a sister who was incredibly supportive the whole time. I know it was very hard for her to watch me suffer and I’m so grateful for all the kindness she offered me over the duration. Unfortunately, though, her support could only go so far because it wasn’t until I was really ready to help myself that I was able to actually improve.

Eating disorders are often a result of an underlying issue expressed through a disordered relationship with food, as you probably know. For me, it meant getting to the route of those issues and dealing with them head on. However, offering support and reinforcing positive thinking without enabling her is so important (for example, while this sounds counter intuitive, when people told me I was really thin, it made me happy and I felt like what I was doing was working. In some sick, twisted way, I wanted to lose more weight. And so I did). Ultimately, I think the love I felt from those around me propelled me to start looking deeper and find my self love. Also, when my sister talked with me about it, it helped to get things out in the open and definitely helped me feel less alone. Also, simply by reaching out, asking others and doing some research into the subject is helpful. The more educated you are on the subject, the better equipped you’ll be to tackle the hard stuff with her. So, good job!

Sophie Speidel Sophie: As a high school guidance counselor, I spend a good deal of time working with teens who are struggling with anxiety and depression, and often these mental health challenges are at the root of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or orthorexia. In fact, a few years ago, we lost one of our students to heart complications from bulimia and anorexia, so our school community is very active in educating one another on what to look for and how to intervene if we suspect a student is struggling with an eating disorder (ED). If you suspect your friend may be struggling, take the time to have a private conversation where you share the behaviors you have noticed (loss of weight, not eating or avoiding eating in social situations, leaving for the bathroom after eating, etc).

This is a hard and courageous conversation to have, and can be very difficult for the person struggling to hear, so try to listen non-judgmentally and just present what you’ve noticed without blame or shame. Be prepared for him/her to resist or deny help, remind them that you love and care for them, and offer to accompany them to talk with someone (doctor, therapist, or nutritionist who understands the difficulties in treating ED). As you probably know, the sooner someone gets treatment for ED, the better, as ED’s can be very difficult to treat unless caught early.

trail-sister-silke-koesterSilke: Here’s advice from a friend who has struggled with eating disorders.She says:

“Eating disorders are not a clear cut illness. A lot of people, particularly athletes, have disordered eating at some point in time. The problem comes when the disordered eating interferes with a person’s ability to function fully in all parts of their life, and when food and food related thoughts and activities overshadow other parts of life. In the same way that an eating disorder can look a lot of different ways, there are a lot ofdifferent places people can be, in relation to their eating disorder. There is no one set of steps or right way to approach someone about a suspected eating disorder.

I think one of the most important things is to know your own motivations and feelings about the situation because your feelings will come out in how you approach the person and what you say and how you react to whatever your friend says and does. When you are aware of your own feelings and motivations first, it can help you in making decisions about how to interact with your friend. Some people with eating disorders will respond well to gentle encouragement to gain a couple of pounds before an upcoming race. Some people will deliberately lose more weight if they suspect you have noticed anything. Some people will become furious and shut you out if they suspect you know about any behaviors they are ashamed of. And some people will act like they have no idea what you are talking about. The point is that there are a bunch of ways that someone with an eating disorder might react when someone confronts them, and how they react is not your fault as the friend who is trying to help them. Eating disorders are insidious and can completely hijack someone’s ability to interact with other people.

As a friend, you are not going to be able to heal the eating disorder, but you can give your friend whatever your best qualities are. Try to find the little things you can do. For example, if you are good at making contacts and doing research, find out what your friend is open to, whether it be a short article about Female Athlete Triad or an appointment with a nutritionist who focuses on eating disorders.  If you run and talk, listen for any reference on your friend’s part to how much of a particular food they ate yesterday or a silence in the conversation and use the opportunity to let them know that you see them and you care. If you are the type to send everyone home with leftovers and to find the best gifts for people in random locations, admit to your friend that you don’t know what to give them right now, because you think they have something going on that won’t be made better with a meal or bar of soap.

Eating disorders thrive in secrecy, deception, and invisibility. Maybe all you can do is let your friend know that you read an article about how runners do better if they are at or above a certain weight or let your friend know that a problem that some runners struggle with is restricting and binging. That is good. That is what you can do. You have shined some light on the eating disorder, and let your friend know that you see them. On the other hand, if you convince your friend to get some treatment, that also is great. But ultimately, it is better to focus on what you can do versus on what your friend’s response is, because you can’t control your friend’s response.

In the meantime, regardless of where your friend is, you can always try to learn more about eating disorders. Look up a local eating disorder treatment center that might offer community outreach opportunities.”

jennifer-loveJennifer: Two of my closest friends, one a serious runner, and one who just really likes running, both struggled with eating disorders that had a grip on them for years. One of them made a full recovery, and I was able to ask her how to help women who battle this demon. She said that when the disease takes a hold of you, it’s really tough to have someone who isn’t yourself, get you out of it. The more she was confronted by friends and family, the more she isolated herself from those that were desperate to help, only causing her to sink deeper into the disorder. Do your best to confront the situation in a way that doesn’t put her on the defense right off the bat. Denial is usually the first common response here.  Be kind, be graceful, and just let her know that you are her champion, and pillar of support if she needs you to be there. Unfortunately, the will to recover and move past this must come from your friend alone. As much as you may desire to weigh in with thoughts, opinions, and your support, it is she that must first want to receive the help you’re offering.

Call for Comments:

Have you struggled with an ED and have had a friend confront you?

Have you addressed a friend struggling with ED? What did you do/say?

Share this with your Trail Sisters!

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Showing 2 comments
  • Lisa Perkins

    I really love how people use the phrase “I see you”. I’ve been told by friends with EDs that being told they are beautiful actually does more harm than good. They aren’t in a place to receive feedback on their appearance or health, because they either feel guilty/defensive when people notice something negative, or they feel the need to “maintain” their ED when people give them positive comments. By saying “I see you”, you’re saying that you see the you that is inside – the real person. You’re acknowledging your love for them, acknowledging their possible suffering, and acknowledging that no matter what, you’re there for THEM. Helping someone you love is difficult. You want to “fix”, but you can’t. Be ready to receive negative responses to your good intentions, and know that those negative responses aren’t meant to be personal. Stay calm, patient, and positive. Be willing to leave the ball in your friend’s court if neccessary. Someone in recovery does not need the added pressure of pleasing you by “recovering” before they are ready. This will not lead to a true recovery. Let them know that this is their journey, and you are willing to be involved as much as THEY want you to be. And remember, ED and addiction is not a light switch that can be turned off in a day. Sometimes, it’s a dimmer, and sometimes it will blow the breaker on the entire house. Be ready to repair lines daily.

  • Lisa Perkins

    Also… sorry, I have thoughts… if you aren’t comfortable having a direct conversation about ED, consider bringing up the section in Krissy’s book about mesntrual cycles. Simply having a talk about running during your period (how do you stash tampons during an ultra? what do you use for cramps?) could open up a conversation. If your friend has stopped cycling, ask her if she has any idea why. See where that leads you. She may be more likely to open up if she doesn’t think you already know. Humans want to share by nature. Hopefully, she’ll open up to you if she thinks it is a non-ED health conversation.

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