How to Identify Food Rituals

Nicole, one of our Nutritional Therapists, shares her insight on food rituals and how to identify them…

Many times when someone has an eating disorder they can communicate by speaking “food” instead of English or their spoken tongue. Food, (like the human body) is tangible, meaning it can be seen, physically touched and manipulated and sometimes the signs of an eating disorder or disordered eating can be displayed in one’s behaviour at the dinner table. These food rituals can be displayed at every meal, or with certain foods or in certain situations and highly depend on the individual.

Some examples include:

  • Organizing food on a plate before eating or excessively mixing foods all together
  • Eating one item or food group at a time
  • Not allowing foods to touch on the plate
  • Covering mouth/hiding mouth while chewing or eating
  • Not letting lips touch food or silverware
  • Using excessive condiments
  • Eating non finger foods with fingers or using a fork and knife with food normally eaten with one’s hands (i.e. pizza or sandwiches)
  • Hiding food
  • Eating very slowly or very quickly
  • Taking extremely small or large bites
  • Cutting or tearing food in small bits
  • Using salt, sugar, hot sauce or artificial sweeteners on non-typical foods or in excess
  • Drinking an excessive amount of fluids at meals

Food, of course, is a cultural item and there are certain rituals, patterns or combinations of foods that are normal depending on one’s culture. Therefore, it’s important to differentiate between a cultural norm and an eating disordered behaviour which can be discovered by comparing one’s family and friend’s practices surrounding food. Once that is separated out it’s worth exploring how these eating disordered rituals may be serving oneself and what their purpose may be.

Food for thought:

When someone cuts or tears food into small pieces it can mean there is too much going on in their surroundings, they may feel ill equipped to breakdown these activities in life and compensate by “breaking” down (tearing) food. OR cutting food can be a way to make the food last longer or to make it look like there is more food than there really is.

Also, when someone has an eating disorder, flavour can be a scary thing, and it can be an automatic response to avoid these fears. A flavour can bring back difficult memories, it can taste bad, or it can taste good. It can also be a way to mask the potential for enjoying a meal or to add flavour to a meal where fat content has been restricted in attempts to “make up” for the lack of flavour that fat provides.

Eating quickly can be triggered by psychologically imposed deprivation or a result of physical restriction. One may have lived in a household where food was fought over by other siblings or family members and therefore eating quickly ensured that one received the most that they could before it disappeared and this behaviour can remain even if one is no longer in that environment.

These rituals may come and go depending on what life brings. One may feel that life has become chaotic and overwhelming, and finds anxiety playing out on their plate when it hasn’t been there for some time. This is an example of when a bridge can be built between the action and the reason. Challenging these rituals by doing the opposite can create discomfort, and allow the feelings to set in. This can be done one ritual at a time. Challenging food rituals can disrupt the process of communicating through food and will require using one’s voice as an alternative and coping with the emotions that arise with stressors of life.

Awareness is the first step to change. So put those mindfulness goggles on and keep a reflective eye! If you are a loved one of someone that struggles with disordered eating and you notice food rituals at the table don’t address this in the moment, rather ask your loved one if everything is alright and if there is anything they’d like to talk about away from the table. Rather than bringing more attention to the food draw attention to them and how they are doing overall because a food ritual can indicate that something isn’t alright.

  • Read Marissa’s blog on social eating here
  • Find out more about our Food Groups here

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