Most people don’t think twice about heading out to dinner with friends or going to an event where food might be served. But, for people who are struggling with eating disorders, social situations — particularly those that involve food — can trigger complex emotional responses that can make it difficult to maintain healthy relationships.
When a person is experiencing the symptoms of an eating disorder, it isn’t just dangerous for their physical health. The loneliness and isolation associated with eating disorders can create a harmful cycle that can be exceptionally hard to break.
Typically, people who are not living with an eating disorder have a healthy relationship with food that allows them to enjoy a meal without thinking about how it affects their mind, body, and relationships with their loved ones. But, food and eating can create more complicated dynamics for people who are struggling with disordered eating.
According to The Journal of Psychology, food can serve a variety of purposes for people who are battling an eating disorder. Some of the many ways people use food might include self-medicating feelings of pain or trauma, creating a sense of fulfillment in place of the relationships that are lacking in their lives or filling the void left by relationships they’ve lost. For others, engaging in disordered eating behaviors allows them to avoid or even numb overwhelming emotions.
Snacks served at a friend’s movie night or menu choices at a restaurant are often wrapped in the complexity of these emotions when a person is struggling with disordered eating behaviors. In many cases, an individual might feel like it is the eating disorder that is actually in control of their food choices or the way they eat, and that may be difficult for friends or family members to understand.
What can further complicate a person’s social experiences is that, when they are battling an eating disorder, they may also have a negative sense of self-worth and difficulty trusting others, according to The Journal of Psychology. They may feel unsafe or judged by those around them, making social situations too uncomfortable to participate in. To cope with these feelings, an individual may avoid getting together with friends and family, perpetuating the cycle of pain and loneliness.
Having a fulfilling social life while recovering from an eating disorder isn’t impossible. Each person experiences the compulsion to engage in disordered eating behaviors differently, but, in many cases, taking small steps, and then pausing to celebrate along the way, can lead to major victories later.
Depending on where a person is in their recovery journey, going to a restaurant and eating a meal might be a leap that they are unable to take at that moment. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), there are steps that a person in recovery from an eating disorder can try first that might help them experience smaller successes.
If going out to eat at a restaurant is too overwhelming right now, NEDA suggests starting with picking the restaurant where you would like to eat. According to NEDA, for one 16-year-old who was in recovery from an eating disorder, the act of choosing a restaurant was a crucial component of her healing process.
“… Choosing that restaurant was her first step in making a decision for herself instead of her eating disorder making it for her. She took back her power,” Shira Moskowitz, an eating disorder activist and mentor, wrote in a blog post for NEDA.
When selecting a restaurant, do your best to choose for yourself rather than what feels best for the eating disorder you are struggling with. Once you’ve made your decision, take a moment to celebrate this victory — because it is a major victory.
As you start to feel more empowered, you can begin to take more steps toward that restaurant experience. If you feel up to it, look at the restaurant’s online menu. Select what you would like to eat there, again basing your decision on what you want and not what the eating disorder is telling you to eat. Take as much time as you need.
Later on, you might progress to practicing ordering your meal with a trusted friend or loved one. Moskowitz finds this helpful. “I remember the first time I ordered my first ‘non-ED-safe’ food at a restaurant,” she wrote in her blog post for NEDA.
“I felt as if the waiter knew I was breaking my ED rules and wanted to punish me. I had to re-learn that society was not living in my reality of my eating-disordered world. Although [the] ED might be yelling at us about that order, others are not.”
It’s important to remember that recovery from an eating disorder is a journey, and the path is different for everyone. But with treatment and taking the time to walk through the process, you can experience better health and more fulfilling relationships.
Levine, M. P. (2012). Loneliness and Eating Disorders, The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 146:1-2, 243-257. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221804290_Loneliness_and_Eating_Disorders.
Moskowitz, S. (2019). The Challenge of Going to a Restaurant While in Eating Disorder Recovery, National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved from: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/challenge-of-going-to-restaurant-eating-disorder-recovery.
About The Sponsor
McCallum Place is an eating disorder treatment center with locations in St. Louis, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. We provide comprehensive treatment for adolescents and adults. We also offer a specialty treatment program for athletes who are living with eating disorders. Our experienced treatment team works closely with each patient to ensure that they play a central role in their recovery process. We offer a full range of services to meet the unique needs of each patient and address all issues related to the treatment of eating disorders.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Reviewed & Approved on March 27, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC
Published March 27, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com