Eating disorders are complex illnesses that often lead to severe disturbances in thought patterns and behaviors. A key time when behaviors and thought patterns are illuminated is during meals. Those affected by eating disorders may dread or fear eating and experience anxiety, anger, and depression during mealtimes.
What Does Someone With an Eating Disorders Experience During Meals?
Individuals affected by eating disorders often cite mealtimes as a significant cause of distress. Since eating disorders typically accompany an intense preoccupation with food and body, they lead individuals into disordered eating patterns like restricting, bingeing, or purging. These patterns become solidified over time and become harder to challenge and break. In addition, those affected may experience significant distress over meals. Possible reactions and responses to meal times can include:
- Anxiety, fear, or distress of the impending meal
- Fear of the food served
- Anxiety about eating, especially eating in public
- Lack of appetite
- Emotional disturbance
- Negative thought patterns like “I hate myself for eating this”
- Unrealistic thought patterns such as “If I eat this I will become fat”
- Activation of the body’s flight or fight response
- Refusal to eat
- Depression, anxiety, or experiencing an intense need to compensate after the meal is over
What Can Those Affected Do to Ease Meal Anxiety?
Individuals who suffer from an eating disorder can use certain tricks and practices to decrease mealtime anxiety. By using the following techniques, individuals can ease the intensity of emotions surrounding meals.
- Mindfulness before meals. One technique those affected can use before meals is to meditate and reflect. By pausing prior to meals, individuals can take time to collect themselves and breathe. This can be a great time to notice negative thought patterns or feelings. A mantra may be helpful in this scenario. Some examples include, “I will eat to nourish my body and soul” or “Food is just food. By eating, I help myself be able to live a fulfilling life.”
- Eat with someone who knows what is going on. It can be helpful to have an ally in your corner to support you during meals. By having a friend or family member present, you have someone to support you in any way that you need.
- Plan something for after meals. Post-meal time can be a tough time for those struggling with eating disorders. It is a time when negative emotions and compensatory behaviors can surface, so it is important to have an alternative plan. Great post-meal activities include going for a mindful walk, playing a game, watching a favorite TV show, or connecting with loved ones.
What Can Support People Do During Mealtimes?
Support people play a critical role in recovery. These individuals are able to address behaviors, reinforce recovery, and act as an ongoing resource. If you are present during mealtime, there are certain things you can do to ease your loved one’s discomfort.
- Ask what they need. Make sure you ask the individual affected how to best support them during mealtimes. They may ask you to distract them or to simply be there with them.
- Don’t talk about what they are eating. Keep conversation light and focused on non-food-related topics. It can be harmful or hurtful to speak about what is being consumed, so stay away from statements like, “Wow, good for you for eating all of that” or “You really cleaned your plate!”
- Be available after dinner. After the meal is finished, try to engage the person in a new activity. You could offer to play cards, go for a short walk, or sit outside and chat.
What to Do if Meals Are Hard
If mealtimes are particularly challenging for you or a loved one, it’s important to get support. This could come in the form of eating disorder treatment, recovery nights, or educational classes. By equipping yourself with resources, you are able to address any problem head-on and find a healthy solution.