Do You Live With the Food Police?

stock-illustration-19467692-policemanI saw a patient today that made me sad. She shared a story I have heard one too many times. The reason the story is bothersome is because the things some people do in the name of caring are so obviously not helpful at all, and actually very harmful. It seems like a no-brainer to me, if that makes sense. By that I mean those simple things, like manners, that everyone should know. Saying or doing something that if you have one iota of intelligence, you would know it is wrong.

But for some reason, people don’t get it.

So I decided to write about it because even if just one person reads this and changes, or reads this and shares it then maybe someone will stop. What I am referring to is the food police. Not the one stuck in your head. The real live one(s) many people live with.

The story goes like this: the teenager, who always played soccer and was thin and fit in high school goes off to college, stops her sports so she could focus on studying and then gains weight. Mom is not happy about this (and neither is the college kid), and mom wants to help her daughter. So she makes comments about what her daughter  is eating when she is home visiting: “are you sure you want that much? Do you think you really need that?” On top of this, her dad and her younger brother have also joined the forces. They watch what she eats and feel they are “helping” her when they comment about those cookies or chips or ice cream sandwiches, “those aren’t for you, they are for your brother, you don’t need them!”

Or consider the young wife who has a few kids, gains weight and no longer fits into those tight jeans. She already beats herself up about this, and knows her husband is not happy. He says he just wants to help and that is why he feels the need to tell her when she has had enough.

What happens when mom, dad, brother and hubby leave? What would YOU do? If there was white chocolate mousse in my house (my favorite, and something you just can’t find easily), and someone said it was “not for me”, I will tell you what I would do. I would wait until they left, or went to sleep, and I would sneak it. Actually, no, that is not true because that would make me feel guilty if I had to lie. I would probably be honest and tell them directly that they better not leave it there because I will steal some!

But most people in this position are not able to be direct and stand up for themselves. They find it hard to say “look, I love chips, so if they are here, I am probably going to eat some, and I would appreciate it if you would mind your own business!” No, what I see is that children and adults alike all do the same thing when they live with the food police. They sneak. They binge eat. They feel guilty. Part of it is that they really do crave the food but much of it seems to be almost a passive aggressive resentful act against those trying to control them.

I remember clearly a middle aged woman who was in one of my non-diet weight management classes many years ago. Her husband was the food police (just trying to help her). She would sit and eat her Special K cereal with skim milk while he scoffed down his bacon and pancakes every morning. Then, she would watch through the window as he drove out of the driveway and around the corner. Once he was out of sight, she went straight to the fridge. She would binge on all of the foods he would not want her to eat. He did not understand why she was not losing weight when she barely ate. She had a lot of work to do with making that relationship healthy and one that would truly support and not control her.

So what would I recommend to family members who really do want to help? (You can share this with them if you agree):

  • ASK your loved one how you can help.
  • LISTEN to what they say. Sometimes it is helpful to NOT have certain foods in the home if it triggers someone to binge eat. Binge eating often leads to other disordered behaviors such as purging, and this is not what you want to happen. Little Johnny can have Oreo’s at his friends house or buy them at CVS, if his sister is struggling at the moment, he can live without them at home. Hubby can live without ice cream at home (go out for a cone when you want one! and take your wife if she wants to go too)
  • STOP talking about weight. Or body size. Theirs, your own, your neighbors, Oprah’s, anybody’s!
  • ACCEPT the beautiful person your loved one is that has nothing to do with the force of gravity on their body (which is all weight is, right?)
  • PROMOTE health in your home. Make healthy meals. Play outside. Dance, play games, have fun.
  • TRUST that your adult child or your spouse or whoever will figure out what is best for them. Be an example, NOT the police.
  • IF you notice any disordered eating behaviors, don’t ignore it. Educate yourself (check out NEDA)for some support.

And if you are the one feeling like the criminal living with the food police, consider sharing this post. Blame it on me! If the dietitian admits she would be sneaking the white chocolate mousse….well, maybe they will understand.

Who is ED?

eating-disorder-mirror-drawingI first was introduced to ED back in 1996. I had just finished graduate school and took a part time job at an eating disorder program. As a dietitian, my main interest was in health promotion and disease prevention. It made sense to me that it seemed smarter and easier to help people prevent disease if possible through promoting a healthy lifestyle. It is much harder to treat illnesses that may have been prevented. I specifically remember a middle aged man who I met during my very first job as a dietitian in a small hospital. He was admitted after having a heart attack. His lifestyle was not healthy at all (smoking, unhealthy diet, no physical activity). I remember thinking that he should not have been there.

I left the hospital after just one year and changed my focus to helping people be healthy. I worked for WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and loved teaching young mothers about healthy eating. I also did some private practice and that is when I knew I needed more skills with counseling, and went back to graduate school (with a focus on counseling). It was while working on the college campus that I encountered students with “sub-clinical” eating disorders. In other words, they were restrained eaters who dieted yet had not developed an eating disorder yet. I did my research on “cognitive restraint” because I felt if we could stop people from dieting and focus on health instead, we could possibly prevent an eating disorder.

Although working with eating disorders was something I never planned to do, after doing my research, I ended up connecting with many eating disorder professionals and got my job at the eating disorder program. It was here where I was introduced to “ED”.

I got to observe group sessions and then got to run my own. Every patient is different however one of the common connections all of the patients related to was a “voice” that was constantly in their heads. Meet ED. I eventually imagined a little ugly creature sitting on my patient’s shoulders, feeding them thoughts and ideas, rules and insults, misinformation about themselves, food, their bodies, absolutely everything. This voice (ED) would follow them around all day long, into the night. It never stopped. It was a learning process for me as I learned about how this voice contributes to all of the distortions and beliefs individuals suffering from these eating disorders experience.

Here are some of the things my patients have told me ED says (warning, it will make you sad):

  • you can’t have that, it will make you fat
  • why did you eat that? you are worthless, you have no willpower!
  • don’t listen to her, she is lying, she wants you to gain weight
  • white flour is bad
  • meat is bad
  • you can’t eat fried food
  • you can’t have that, it has sugar in it
  • you need to burn that up, when are you going to do it? figure it out, you ate it, now you need to get rid of it
  • you look fine, they are just jealous because you lost weight. You need to lose more. Don’t listen to them
  • you are disgusting
  • you didn’t do enough. You need to do more, more laps, more sit-ups, more more more.

Get the picture? Depending on where someone is in the recovery process, talking about this voice does come up. It is a slow process, but helping individuals fight this voice is critical. Exposing ED for the liar that he is takes a lot of work and energy. Of course, every patient needs therapy to work through their specific issues that led to the eating disorder in the first place. As a dietitian, I focus on teaching the truth about foods, eating, weight, etc. Sometimes, during a visit with a patient who is fighting hard and finally aware of what a “healthy” voice is, ED still weasels his way back in. I admit to falling into the trap of arguing with ED, and then it hits me, and I stop. I have often said to patients “wait a minute, I am not going to engage ED, can I talk to YOU?!” Once I had a patient get up and dramatically rip ED from her shoulder and throw him in the waste basket! She said “I have lots of family celebrations this weekend and I want to enjoy them. ED is not invited!” I will never forget that strong visual.

Another thing people don’t often realize is that individuals with eating disorders are just that. Individuals who unfortunately struggle with this disease. They are not an “anorexic” or a “bulimic”. They are people. I have met the most extraordinary people who have had ED on their shoulders and have had to fight him daily. I have met lawyers, dancers, chefs, professors, soccer players, football players, mothers, aunts, fathers, sons, daughters. I have enjoyed getting to know these individuals and especially as ED fades away and they can be their very interesting, fun, loving, energetic and happy selves again. That to me has been rewarding beyond explanation.

And what about you? Unfortunately, I hear people mumbling out loud about food, their bodies, what they ate, exercise, etc. in ways that are not always healthy, and sound way too much like ED. He is a villain that somehow has become culturally acceptable (which makes it real hard for those struggling). Remember, prevention is a lot easier than recovery. When you hear a berating, negative voice in your head about anything to do with eating or your body, just try to be aware. Stop ED in his tracks. Say “you are full of it!” If you can’t stop that voice, you may want to consider getting some help. Maybe someday, our culture will normalize it’s view of eating and body size and he will fade away. Until then, I hope you continue to fight the craziness in your own way.