Eating disorders and family

Eating Disorders and Family Life — Mealtime tension, shopping, food choices and exercise


In my last post on eating disorder recovery for an adult with children, I wrote about mealtimes and how to make them (more of a ) a success in terms of recovery goals with kids at the table. This week I wanted to touch on the impact that the eating disorder may or may not have had on family life thus far.

Before we get going, one thing has to be made clear. There is no blame here in the. No judgement on how good a parent. how caring a parent, or how loving a parent a parent with an eating disorder is. No judgement on how much you love your partner, or allow your eating disorder to affect that relationship. Also, parents do not cause eating disorders.

Parents. Do. Not. Cause. Eating. Disorders.

This is not to be interpreted as that. What this is, is reality. An eating disorder affects the whole family in the same way a cancer diagnosis would affect the whole family — that is the reality. Rather than tiptoeing around that, let’s accept that and work out how to sort it out.

If you children are very young you may assume that they have been oblivious to the eating disorder that one of their parents has. That is probably not a safe assumption to make. Even if they don’t understand it as an eating disorder, they may have noticed the general tension at mealtimes; parents arguing if the eating disorder is making the sufferer parent fractious; that the sufferer parent has lost weight; that only certain types of food are eaten by the sufferer parent; that as a family only very healthy food is eaten if the sufferer parent has been controlling grocery shopping and family meals before treatment began; and various other things.

 

Mealtime tension

This may or may not be something that has affected your family. It certainly will have affected the eating disorder sufferer, but some of us are famously great at hiding eating disorder stress from others. In case you are wondering, it is not just Anorexia Nervosa that causes mealtime tension. Any form of eating disorder will do including BED and Bulimia Nervosa.

Some of us experience such a high degree of mealtime anxiety that it is near impossible not to be irritable and fractious at mealtimes. Then family feels like they are treading on eggshells all the time — especially at mealtimes.

I have to be honest, it is a really good thing that I didn’t have kids when I was sick. You could look at me wrong at a mealtime and I would blow my top. I was like a pressure cooker at every meal. (Pun intended … kind of.)

With binge eating disorder this can be a different sort of tension. On the anticipation of a binge session, some people get a bit high — giddy — in the hours before a binge. And then there is depression and loathing afterwards. I know one person who used to binge every Thursday night after the kids were in bed as their partner was out at a recurring meeting. They told me that they would notice that they felt manic, and this would turn into irritability really fast before the kids went to bed. The Thursday evening kids meal was always hard work to get through, as all they wanted to do was get the kids to bed and out of the way. Oh, and Friday morning was always the hardest time of the week for the whole family. No surprise.

I just wanted to point that out, so that you understand that whilst all eating disorders create tension of some sort at some point, they differ, and the individual sufferer will have their own patterns. Hence why we need to be brutally honest in uncovering these and letting other people help us work out how to overcome them.

I went though a long cycle of binge-purge as I was resisting extreme hunger that often accompanies eating disorder recovery (this is not the same as BED, rather it is a natural bodily response to starvation). I noticed that I would be pretty unemotional and calm in the restriction phase (unless anyone tried to make me eat, and then all hell broke loose) but in the couple hours leading up to eating I would be irritable, angry, because eating was so close, yet so far away. It was almost unbearable how badly I wanted to eat but could not allow myself to do so until the designated time. Once I understood that the only way to break this cycle was to not restrict and keep eating the tension reduced a ton.

If you do have kids, and you do have a high level of mealtime tension than this should be something that you and your partner talk about as a couple in your Recovery Launch meeting and ongoing recovery Weekly Planning meetings. If it is there, there is no point in pretending it is not. You have to talk about it and brainstorm ways to manage it. Project manage the shit out of it!

Following the guidance in the recovery guide and taking all decision making around food away from the sufferer will help to reduce mealtime tension. However, introducing fear foods is one to watch as this may increase tension. There will be some days that are easy and some days that are harder — that’s recovery. You will probably find that the practice of identifying and talking about this stress will help to alleviate it and mealtimes will become more relaxed.

I know it is cliche, but “it’s good to talk” and it is even better to talk, plan, concur.

Side note: Not all of us react to our eating disorder by making other people eat healthily etc.

In fact, many of us do just the opposite. I would take massive (and rather creepy) joy in watching other people eat cakes, fast food, basically all the foods I was unable to eat. I would discourage other people from exercising as it threatened me.

Nowadays, I really do not give two hoots what anyone else eats (unless I am coaching them in recovery, in which case it is my job to care). If I tell someone else to eat fast food I am eating it with them. I can go out to lunch with friends and still order a burger whilst they order a salad. I know that I am making choices that are right for me. What the rest of the world does and does not eat cannot affect my body.

Eating disorders love to compare. For me, the need to do this vanished as recovery progressed. I care about what other people eat now about as much as I care about what they wear. Which is not at all. Anyhow, I’m telling you this so that you can be on the lookout for “pushing” food onto other family members without actually eating yourself. It is an ED thing. It is weird. It will go away in recovery. It needs to be talked about and countered in the meantime.

 

Food choices

Eating disorders such as Anorexia tend to make overly “healthy” food choices (insert: ridiculously “healthy,” boring, monotonous, tasteless food choices) . Either that, or they restrict food groups and make very limited food choices.

Some parent sufferers will have inadvertently laid these choices out for the family as well as themselves — no judgement, but if you have done this, you may want to recognize it and amend it.

Others tend to allow the family to eat what they want and only restrict their own meals. Others, as mentioned above, push foods onto family members while not eating themselves.

You should identify what has been happening in your own family, and discuss how to take action if action is needed. Either way, I strongly suggest that the eating disorder sufferer has limited involvement in choosing family foods for the duration of the recovery period. Eating disorders will not allow sufferers to make balanced choices around food.

When I was sick, my idea of a weekly food shop would have been lettuce, kale, apples, and if I was feeling brave: a pot of low-fat yoghurt. Good job at that time I wasn’t inflicting this on anyone else (because I was alone … but that is another story). I wish I had had someone there to shop for me. I found grocery shopping decisions cripplingly hard in recovery. I knew I had to buy scary foods, but felt paralyzed whenever I tried to do it. I remember one time it took me over an hour to decide between two jars of peanut butter. One of which was 200 cals a serving, and that other was 195.

An hour! I am not even exaggerating. And the result: I bought neither, and went home a shaking mess, confused, both triumphant (the ED brain) and disappointed (my healthy brain) at the same time.

So yeah, if someone without an eating disorder can do the weekly shop for a while it is probably a good thing.

Low-fat and low-calorie foods should be totally banned from the house. Nobody in the world needs to subject themselves to diet food. It doesn’t work. We know this. Stop buying it.

 

Side note: Don’t assume I am talking about mothers here. 

Men get eating disorders too. More often when a man has an eating disorder it goes undiagnosed. He is brushed off as someone “really into” exercise — long distance running, or biking, or weights. Undiagnosed, a man can have no idea that his inclination towards “heathy” is anything but. This makes him more likely to impact the family as he has no idea himself that he has a problem and society tells him everything he is doing is “healthy.”

I have a friend (who doesn’t have an ED) who believes that her father had an undiagnosed eating disorder: bulimia — and exercise was his purging. She says that she and her brother never knew coming home from school if today was going to be a feast day or a famine day. Some days they would be picked up and driven straight drive thru to get burgers and pizza and ice cream and chocolate. Some days their father would be sullen, irritable, and he would not allow their mother to cook — rather he took control of the kitchen and it would be salad for dinner with no dessert.

To the outside world, her father was a marathon runner, an athlete. But behind closed doors she says he was either incredibly controlling about what the family ate, or was figuratively throwing food at them. In hindsight she can see that this correlated with his exercise routines.

In case you are wondering, neither her nor her brother have developed an eating disorder. This is not what this blog is about, it is just to point out that even while the affects of having a parent with an eating disorder can be benign enough, they are there. Kids notice stuff.

 

Exercise

Eating disorders love to hide behind the notion that exercise is always a healthy thing to do. For a person with an eating disorder, exercise can be as much as a symptom as restricting food is. And really this is a big one for the men too!

Exercise absolutely should be stopped if the sufferer cannot fathom not stopping. Another catch-22 here (eating disorders are full of them) is that the things that we are most resistant to doing (such as eating high-calorie foods and not exercising) are the very same things that we really, really need to do .If someone telling to you stop exercise for a week feels on par to them telling you that they are going to preform a lobotomy on you tomorrow — then you know you have a problem. You have to stop.

This may mean that you have to take a look at your family’s leisure activities of choice. If the eating disorder sufferer has been undiagnosed or untreated for a while, he or she may have unknowingly influenced the way that the entire family feels about exercise.

Are you the family that has already hiked 3 hours on a Saturday morning before breakfast? Are you the family that has family fun runs scheduled out in the calendar for the rest of the year?

Are you really doing these things for fun? Or is it because you perceive them to be healthy? Or is it because there is an eating disorder in the house?

I don’t know the answer to this question, and chances are you won’t immediately know that either. How about taking some time to think and reflect on it by lying in bed later than usual this weekend and ordering take-out for dinner? Can’t do any harm, can it?

If you do come to the conclusion that an eating disorder is in the driving seat of the family activities, then the non-sufferer parent (EDCP) should take an audit of what the family activities are, how long people exercise, and how often rest days are “allowed.” If you consider your family to be “active” take a look at how that family identity has been created by the eating disorder living amongst you. Be brave. Go full slob for a while. Have duvet and popcorn days. Chill the f58k out.

Activity should be fun, not prescribed.

You could also talk to your children about exercise and make sure that they know that there is such a thing as too much exercise too. Kids tend to be pretty good at running around and playing because it is fun before culture messes all that up and imposes a gym membership on them.

 

Genetics

This part sucks. Eating disorders most likely have a genetic base. If a parent has an eating disorder, it is more likely that your children have the genetic predisposition to have one.

The good news is this: you know what to do. Or at least, by the time you have removed the eating disorder from your family once you will do.

The other good news is that you can do work now to set your children up for success. Or at least, you can do all that you can to ensure that they do not engage in activities that may trigger an eating disorder. No dieting in your household. No diet talk, No excessive exercise. Discourage friends who are overly interested in diet and fitness. Don’t glamorize skinny. You get the picture.

Eating disorders have to be triggered by a negative energy balance. You can make steps to decrease the likelihood that your child will feel the need to diet or do anything that actively puts them at a calorie deficit.

 

 

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About Tabitha Farrar

I work as Head of Marketing for a software startup in Boulder. As a recovered Anorexia sufferer, I advocate for proper understanding of eating disorders in my spare time. On that note, I wrote a book about my own journey into eating again called Love Fat.

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