The relationship with food for people with eating disorders, or ED, of any kind, is very complicated. At their heart, EDs are diseases based on the sufferer’s need to exert some control over their environment.
That need for control can be caused by many different things, including the need to punish oneself, major life upheavals or physical, sexual, mental or emotional abuse. Whatever the need stems from, once it is established and has manifested as an eating disorder, it is very difficult to put down.
Different types of difficulties
While it’s true that everyone with an ED will have a difficult relationship with food, the specifics of those relationships can vary quite considerably. Usually, the variations fall along the lines of the different types of disorders. The relationship can also change over time, as the ED progresses.
For instance, an anorexic might feel the only way to assert control in their life is to avoid food, while a compulsive overeater might crave the release of feeling out of control that they get from binging. For a bulimic, they might get the sense of relief from binging, followed by a false sense of control when they purge.
Over time, a lot of people with eating disorders also develop certain rituals around food and eating, to bolster their sense of control even more. They might need to eat what’s on their plate in a certain order or have their meals at set times. Specific foods are often eliminated completely, and in some cases, they might even be assigned human characteristics.
Researchers have also found that specific eating preferences, beliefs and behaviours are usually heavily influenced by what individuals saw and experienced when they were growing up. For instance, they might have a distorted idea of how big a normal portion is. If a caregiver has their own struggles with disordered eating, this can have a direct impact on how someone with an ED perceives and thinks of food.
Food is an enemy
No matter what an ED sufferer’s particular relationship is with food, it’s very likely that they consider it an enemy. The way they think of food becomes so distorted that it is viewed as an almost undefeatable foe, rather than as a source of nourishment.
Giving in and breaking their self-imposed rules, with regards to eating, is very tough for these individuals. The sheer feelings of failure and raw self-hatred are difficult to describe to anyone who has not been through these experiences.
And these feelings are what make someone with an eating disorder continue with their behaviour. As faulty as this logic is, many believe that the only way they can make up for their perceived failure is to stick to their rules even more. Obsessing about what they are and aren’t allowed to eat, and what they’re going to need to do to stick to their plans, is also a great distraction. These thoughts take up space and become a way to avoid dealing with problems and difficult situations.
Recovery is hard work, but possible
Resolving to follow their self-imposed rules even more usually becomes essential to an ED sufferer being able to calm down and soothe themselves. They can lessen their self-hatred, at least for a while. But this becomes a vicious cycle, one that individuals are not able to break on their own.
Working with dieticians, nutritional counselling and getting emotional support during meals can all help sufferers to recover. If therapy to deal with the deeper causes of their illness occurs at the same time, results are even more hopeful. With hard work, they can start using food to provide nourishment, rather than as an instrument of distraction or self-torture.