How Do You Address Jokes Being Made About Eating Disorders? Q&A with Paula Quatromoni

In this Q&A series, Dr. Paula Quatromoni (DSc, RD) answers some of the biggest questions coaches and athletic staff have to better prevent eating disorders in athletes, and assist athletes who may be struggling. Sign up for our email list to get more Q&As/stories like this directly to your inbox.

Q: “How would you suggest addressing jokes being made about eating disorders?”

A: Eating disorders are no joke. They are serious mental health conditions that people die from. Death occurs from the life-threatening complications of malnutrition or by suicide. The burdens of pain, suffering, psychological, emotional, and physical distress are beyond what most people comprehend. Eating disorders are crises that affect interpersonal, familial, and social relationships; they also disrupt one’s ability to function in school, at work, and in society. Eating disorders steal lives and they steal quality of life over years if not decades.

When someone makes a joke about an eating disorder, it reflects both insensitivity to the plight of others and their low awareness about the seriousness of the disease. Would one joke about cancer or suicide? Eating disorders are no different. Yet as mental health disorders, they are both misunderstood and highly stigmatized.

The discomfort you might experience when a joke is made in poor taste or at your or someone else’s expense may completely disarm your ability to respond. You may be taken aback, caught off guard, experience a degree of shock, and be at a total loss for words. Or, you may laugh nervously because it feels awkward and you just want to escape or quickly change the subject.

If the joke is directed at you, it may be more challenging to respond to than if the joke is directed at someone else. Most people, including those who are dealing with an eating disorder, have an easier time standing up for someone else than they do standing up for themselves. Figuring out and practicing how to position your voice in situations like these is a worthwhile pursuit, especially if you find this happening in certain contexts or around certain people in your social networks. A counselor, therapist, or your journal can help you practice these communication skills.

So, what are some options? Consider these and see what feels accessible to you.

Emote – let the person know that what they just said, while intended perhaps as a joke, is not funny. State that, in fact, it was hurtful to you. Label and express your feeling. You are always on solid ground when you identify, own, and express your feelings.

  • That joke hurts my heart.
  • When you make a joke like that, I feel sad.
  • I am really uncomfortable when you joke about mental health.
  • I feel distant (or alienated) when you talk like that.
  • I feel angry hearing you make a joke about… [that person; an eating disorder; something I actually experience myself].

Confront – call out the behavior as inappropriate and refuse to participate in joking about a serious illness like an eating disorder. Simply state your own behavioral code of ethics, decline to engage, and move on by redirecting the conversation to a new topic. Stick to “I” statements and avoid passing judgement or leveraging a critical comment onto the jokester. Make your response about you, not about them.

  • Mental health is not a topic I will ever joke about.
  • I am not even going to engage with that joke because there is nothing funny about eating disorders.
  • I don’t join in when jokes are at someone else’s expense.
  • I don’t play into stereotypes or jokes that perpetuate stigma. It doesn’t align with my values.
  • Joking about eating disorders feels really offensive to me. I won’t go there.
  • You may think that’s funny, but it hits too close to home for me. I need to redirect.

Educate – take this as an opportunity to educate the person about eating disorders to help them appreciate their seriousness and severity. Familiarize yourself with the a few key facts or statistics to quote from a reliable source. Here are a few of my favorites that you can easily add to pose a question that starts with, “Do you know that…?”

Nine Truths about Eating Disorders: “Eating disorders carry an increased risk of both suicide and medical complications.”

National Eating Disorders Association: “Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for those diagnosed with an eating disorder.”

STRIPED, the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders, in partnership with the Academy of Eating Disorders:About 29 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.” And, “every 52 minutes, someone dies as a direct consequence of an eating disorder.”

Emote. Confront. Educate. With these responses, you also Advocate. When you communicate in ways that bring awareness and sensitivity to the public health crisis of eating disorders, you amplify the potential to save a life. You can do this by addressing stereotypes, busting myths, correcting misperceptions, and advocating for vulnerable subgroups like people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community who are often the targets of harassment, bullying, and invalidation. Eating disorders are no joke. Words make a difference. Choose yours carefully and make them matter.


Paula Quatromoni, DSc, MS, RD is a registered dietitian, academic researcher, and one of the country’s leading experts in the prevention and treatment of eating disorders in athletes. Dr. Quatromoni is a tenured associate professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology, and Chair of the Department of Health Sciences at Boston University where she maintains an active program of research. She publishes widely on topics including clinical treatment outcomes and the lived experiences of athletes and others with and recovering from eating disorders. In 2004, she pioneered the sports nutrition consult service for student-athletes at Boston University, and in 2016, she led the creation of the GOALS Program, an athlete-specific intensive outpatient eating disorders treatment program at Walden Behavioral Care where she serves as a Senior Consultant. Dr. Quatromoni is an award-winning educator. She earned her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Nutrition from the University of Maine at Orono, and her Doctorate in Epidemiology from the Boston University School of Public Health.