By Maddie Welchoff, Nutrition Intern
During treatment, well-intentioned friends or family members often ask “Why does my loved one need to eat [Insert Food]?” The implication is that the food stated is somehow a bad (or unhealthy, or junk, or processed) food, or at least not a good (or healthy) one. This often comes from a place of compromise, of relief that the person is at least eating in a normalized way. But for treatment to be successful, you cannot compromise with the eating disorder.
A very practical reason is as follows. Once your loved one leaves treatment, they should (eventually) feel comfortable going out to parties or even friends’ houses to eat. But what if the only foods available at the place they go are “bad foods”? They may feel that they should not, that they cannot eat them. This inability to join others in eating could very easily lead someone in recovery to use symptoms to cope with the fact that their choice is “bad food” or no food. Leaving such a significant opening for symptom use in recovery is just asking for a relapse.
You may think “They can just bring something to eat!” but by separating themselves from others and eating different (“healthier/safer”) foods, they are still giving in to a disordered mindset. This is because they are following a food rule. Food rules are a very integral part of many eating disorders. Some eating disorders even start with “sensible” food rules that spiral out of control. So having rules about what foods you are and are not “allowed” to eat, even if the foods you are not “allowed” to eat are “unhealthy/bad” foods, these rules are eerily similar to those many people have in their disorder. This can lead individuals to spiral back into stricter and stricter rules, which can lead to symptom use and eventually relapse.
The last, and largest, problem with this mindset is that your loved one ends up basing their worth on what they eat. When they eat “good” foods they feel that they have been well behaved, virtuous, moral. But when they eat “bad” foods, they feel that they have been bad, disgusting, weak, or other negative characteristics. This is often subtle and not even something people are conscious of. But by basing self-worth and self-image on what is eaten, they are once again giving in to the disordered mindset that they are only as “good” as the foods they eat. Basing self-image on what you eat is a huge trigger to relapse for many people.
So why do they need to eat that? Simply put: to reinforce that all foods are okay, and no matter what they eat, it does not affect their value as a person.