In the last two posts I have looked at the way that eating disorders operate in a family setting when a parent is the sufferer in recovery. The first post addressed how to continue with mealtime support. The second on mealtime tension and shopping etc.

This post looks a little further into the recovery process and how certain things that other non-eating disorder affected family members might do can unintentionally give the recovering sufferer a hard time.  I’m not talking about the obvious things like diet talk in this post. I’m getting at the less obvious ones that can get overlooked. 

Here’s the sort of thing that I mean:

I know a guy who suffered from a form of bulimia, long story short he brought the family up on a gluten-free, sugar-free diet (which he regularly broke in secret and binge ate) for years before realizing he had an eating disorder. He got treatment. He began to recover. He relapsed due to underestimating how much the eating behaviors of his family would trigger him. He learnt from this and second time around he brought the whole family off the gluten-free, sugar-free regime with him. They all lived happily ever after (or as happily ever after as possible when you live in the Midlands).

It can be the very behaviors that your eating disorder imprinted on your family that end up triggering you further down the line. The key to many aspects of recovery is to plan for things that might turn into road bumps and figure out a re-route.


Restrictive diets

Eating disorders love to hide behind fashionable restrictive diets. Some common diets include:

  • Vegan
  • Gluten-free
  • Dairy-free
  • Sugar-free
  • Low-fat
  • Fun-free
  • Zero-taste
  • Boring as fuck.

If your family eat in accordance to any of these diets you will have to look very closely at the motivation that initially prompted you to do so.  

Even if restrictive diets were brought into the family by the non-eating disorder affected partner, you will need to consider this: They could impact on the eating-disorder affected partner’s long term health

I’ll use another story to illustrate. I know a lady who started dating a man who was vegan. She then started on a vegan path herself. This restriction triggered Anorexia in her. He was great actually and supported her though recovery. However when she was in recovery they both realized that in order for her to stay healthy he would have to reconsider his vegan diet. Now, he (because he didn’t have an eating disorder) could have quite happily stayed vegan and who am I to judge about that … . However, she — because it turns out she did have the predisposition for an eating disorder — could not. He stopped being vegan, they got married and lived happily ever after (ish).

So in that circumstance it was not even the partner who had the eating disorder that introduced a restrictive diet. But her health did suffer as a consequence and thankfully they were both smart enough to come to the conclusion that their relationship and health was the most important thing to both of them.

Plus, if you are on the fence look at it this way: If you or your partner has an eating disorder your children have a higher risk of being susceptible to eating disorders due to the genetic component. For this reason, you should be doing everything that you can to ensure that they eat in a way that is not going to leave them at risk. Any diet that restricts or eliminates certain foods will put them at a greater risk of developing an eating disorder in the future. 

Needless to say, an adult in active recovery from an eating disorder cannot participate in any of the diets mentioned above.

Your household should be a pro-recovery, pro-food, pro-eating anything, anti-diet, anti-restriction zone. 


Fussy Eating in Kids

I am no expert on kids, but I have been told that some kids go through stages of fussy eating. Nothing to be worried about so long as it is just a phase. However, this could inadvertently trigger the parent who is in recovery.

Never turn anything to do with food and eating into a confrontational event. Simply reinforce non-fussy eating by praising it, and demonstrate non-fussy eating yourself. If your children have friends who are fussy eaters, you should bring the topic of conversation up with your own kids and make sure that they understand that eating a wide variety of foods is good.

If you have a fussy kid, you and your partner need to be proactive in discussing it and making sure that you check in with one another to ensure that the eating-disorder-affected parent is not being stressed by it. If it comes to it, separate mealtimes (as outlined in the first post in this series) are a safer bet.

When I was in recovery from Anorexia I could be triggered into restricting more by the bloody dog not finishing her dinner. That is how sensitive I was. That is how delicate recovery can be.

In the primary stages of recovery you have to look after the sufferer’s interests first and foremost.



Food as reward

This is something that happens a lot in non-eating disordered people too. Food is used as a reward — most often for doing exercise. This is often more extreme in people with eating disorders. While sometimes sufferers are clandestine about using food as a reward, but even them it is often spoken of as a normal behaviour.

If your family already has a culture of using food as a reward, you must work on changing this. Refrain from using language and behaviours that reinforce it. Praise a healthy appetite regardless of physical activity done.


“Healthy” eating

Eating disorder love to hide behind “healthy” eating.

Healthy eating is overrated at best (and it is boring as church). There is little real evidence that a diet of 99 percent vegetables and fruit does a person much good at all. Yes, you should eat your fruit and veg. But a balanced diet contains a bit of everything. A balanced diet consists of home cooked goodness mingled with the odd takeout or fast-food drive though. A balanced diet contains protein and carbs, but it also contains saturated fat and sugar.

While overdoing it on the fruit and veg may be unbalanced at best for a person without an eating disorder, for a person with the genetic predisposition for an eating disorder it can be disastrous. We need to be able to eat fat and sugar more than the average person does.

Additionally, counter the messages to the contrary that your family might be receiving from other people, the media, etc. They are likely being bombarded with messages that fat is bad and sugar is the devil. With that in mind, you have place even more emphasis on the idea that no food is bad and all food is good.


What about you?

Every person is different. Every couple has their own dynamic. Every family has it’s own operating manual. What are the things that you have noticed in your recovery and have learned from in terms of sustaining recovery with family life?

Let me know in the comments!



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