by Alison Znamierowski
Content warning: sensitive topics such as disordered eating behaviors discussed in this article.
This past Thursday was Thanksgiving, and because this holiday centers around food, it can be a very stressful time for people who are struggling with disordered thoughts or eating practices. While the food alone can certainly be a stressor, the dialogue around food can be equally if not more powerful and triggering (during the Holidays, yes, but also all the time.)
I also want to bring up that people who have struggled with disordered eating at any point in their lives are not usually “fully recovered.” For me, it comes and goes in waves. I can go many months without having any consistent disordered thoughts concerning eating or exercising, but can be triggered at specific meals by ‘food talk’ or ‘body talk.’ I also tend to struggle with disordered thoughts during big transitions in my life. When I hear people tell me they are “so happy I’m better now,” I understand and appreciate the sentiment, but it also stresses me out because sometimes I’m not “better.” Sometimes I am struggling, and now feel an additional pressure to convince the people around me that I am always and infallibly “better.”
So just because your friend or family member seems to have recovered, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are “untriggerable,” or that they haven’t been struggling with disordered eating/thoughts. Here are a few examples of the common ways we talk about food (especially at Thanksgiving, but also generally)— and the ways in which we might not realize they are affecting the people around us.
#1: “Did you know that the average Thanksgiving dinner plate has x calories on it — before dessert?”
You should never say this to someone who struggles with disordered eating… or ever, really. It only creates an environment of food anxiety, and counting calories obsessively is a very common way in which disordered thoughts manifest.
Numbers — miles, pounds, calories, minutes, inches, steps — are a very common trigger for people who have an ED. Numbers can often incite anxious, cyclical, and obsessive disordered thoughts.
For example, while I was struggling the most with disordered thoughts, a lot of them revolved around numbers: how many calories did I eat today? How many did I burn? How many steps did I take on the treadmill? How many miles did I run? How many pounds do I weigh? How many pounds have I lost? How many pounds do I want to lose? What is my B.M.I.?
These kinds of thoughts are hard to stop once they’ve started. So avoiding numbers regarding food, exercise, and weight is a great way to avoid triggering someone who has an ED.
#2: “Aren’t you going to have the ______?/Aren’t you going to finish your ______?”
Someone with an eating disorder hears: I am watching what you are eating.
It might feel like if you ask this to someone you know has struggled with an ED that you are lightly nudging them in the ‘right’ direction, encouraging them to be ‘healthy,’ or letting them know that you ‘care’ about them — but it is not necessarily the right way to go about it.
Often, it just puts more stress on the person to whom you are talking, and makes them feel watched, which leads to more anxiety about the food they’re putting on their plate and/or eating — which ends up being more detrimental than helpful.
#3: Snorting (like a pig) at someone when they get more food.
This sounds ridiculous when it’s written out, doesn’t it? But I’ve had it happen, many times — before and after the people around me knew that I struggled with an eating disorder.
Do not reprimand people for eating. I think that this is one of the most powerful and harmful ways to trigger someone who is trying to develop a healthy relationship with food.
So don’t say, “didn’t you just eat?” or “you’re getting seconds?” or “wow, someone’s hungry!” or “that’s piggie!” or any of the ways in which we are taught it’s okay to police people for eating. In most situations, you should mind your own business when it comes to what is on someone else’s plate.
#4: “Ugh, I can’t believe that I ate that whole plate of food. I just feel gross now.”
This is “food guilt” — feeling guilty for having eaten, whether it be a specific food or a certain amount of food. Food guilt, in my experience, is contagious. When someone introduces the idea of feeling guilty about the meal that they just had — especially if it was shared — it’s difficult to not take on that guilt.
“Food guilting” can also lead to trying to reconcile that guilt with disordered behaviors, like exercising excessively or skipping the next meal. So even though it might seem like an innocuous feeling to express, try to be mindful and keep those thoughts to yourself when they arise.
And when they do arise, I recommend distracting those thoughts — go for a walk with your family or friends, play a board game, play ping pong, watch a movie, take a bath, write in your journal, be with people who support and love you and will make you a cup of tea.
#5: “I went for a six mile run today!” (at the table)
Okay, this one isn’t quite as obvious as the other ones, but is just as harmful. The reason it’s harmful is because when someone says something like this at the dinner table, it reads as a justification for eating: “I can eat this because I exercised today.” Even if they didn’t mean it that way, it can read that way to someone who struggles with an ED. This can set off food guilt, anxious numbered thoughts, and a slue of other disordered thoughts.
#6: “Oof. I have to go walk that meal off.”
This is the flip side of #5 — the only difference is that it is post-meal.
A lot of disordered thoughts center around the question, “how can I get back to zero?” when it comes to caloric intake/work-off. A statement like this is an easy way to exacerbate this type of anxiety.
Language is very powerful, and has the capacity to hurt people — in insidious or direct ways. All in all, it’s important to be mindful of our words, and try to actively change the social scripts around food, exercise, and weight.
Alison Znamierowski graduated from Wesleyan University with a B.A. in Sociology. She loves engaging with spontaneous impulses for adventure, picnicking with friends, wandering barefoot, and making people look at photos of her cat, Luna. She has interned at Hardy Girls, Healthy Women, a social change organization that is dedicated to changing the culture in which girls grow. She currently writes for Proud2BMe and I Am That Girl.