I‘ve never been able to finish eating a banana all the way to the end. And I like to stop drinking a can of Coca Cola 3/4 of the way through. And I don’t like it if my rice is mixed into any other foods.
These are just a few examples of some of my “food quirks”.
They’re traits that, after having gone through recovery and reached a place of normalcy around my eating habits, I thought nothing of. They didn’t particularly bother me… but one day, I stopped and thought about it. I was in a situation at a restaurant where my rice arrived pre-mixed into my curry, and it sent me into panic mode. I was unable to carry out my ‘benign’ food quirk and I found myself sitting in the bathroom wondering how I was going to get out of eating my dinner.
That moment shook me. I was more than 3 years recovered and yet there I was… panicking about rice. I looked a little deeper than just the surface level. And do you know what I realised?
These “food quirks” weren’t just cute little eccentricities. They held a pattern: a fear of finishing a food. An amalgamation of diet culture and everything I’d worked so hard to unlearn, resulting in this quiet (yet dangerous) belief that I didn’t have to ‘count’ a food as part of my intake if I didn’t finish it.
Do you have any “food quirks”? You may be dealing with a ritualistic eating behavior.
“What is a ritualistic eating behavior?”
Ritualistic eating behaviors (REBs) are compulsory behaviors around food (including preparation, consumption and any situation involving food). Most of us have some REB’s or ‘food quirks’ and these aren’t inherently problematic. For instance, we may sit at the same table at our favourite cafe, or take a sip of water at the start of every meal. However, when they start to intertwine with the beliefs of your eating disorder, things can get dangerous.
“Do REBs predict an eating disorder?”
Not necessarily – as eating rituals are such a deeply ingrained part of our culture. However, REBs can contribute to the severity of an eating disorder if the REBs inhibit or influence your life in a negative way.
“How do we tell the difference between a harmless quirk and a symptom of something more dangerous?”
The difference between innocuous quirks and disordered behaviors lies in the mindset that those behaviors are carried out in. An individual with a quirk will often carry out that quirk with no particular feelings either way and remains mostly neutral. If you’re to tell them that they can’t carry out that quirk, it may not bother them that much.
However, an individual with a disordered behavior may feel overwhelmingly negative, anxious or distracted around that behavior and, if you were to take that behavior away from them, it may distress them greatly.
Some examples of REBs that can signal disorder are:
- Needing to eat foods in a specific order
- Having to weigh and measure food
- Bingeing/purging at specific times/places
- Deconstructing food items before eating them
- Feeling the need to stick within a certain calorie limit, only eat at particular times or the inability to eat in certain places
- Checking behavior around portion sizes
“Why does this happen?”
Given that eating disorders are largely interlocked with anxiety, many sufferers will find ways to cope with that stress – sometimes through behavioral means or self-soothing rituals, like the REBs mentioned above. But, whilst the sufferer might deem those rituals harmless, they could be subconsciously reinforcing the disordered beliefs and not allowing the individual to fully confront their food fears.
It’s natural to feel comfort with what’s familiar… but when the disorder is what’s familiar, the individual must venture into the unknown to find their ultimate safety.
Many REBs can be traced back to the core emotion of fear… fear of eating a certain food, of being seen eating or a desire to control intake. Fear breeds compulsion.
“What can I do if I recognise that I have some REBs?”
It starts with challenging the behavior, and recognizing the source of anxiety that it attempts to soothe.
When confronted about their REBs, many ED sufferers feel overwhelmed and scared, and giving up the behavior seems like an insurmountable task.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. ‘Exposure therapy’ is one of the most effective ways to overcome REBs. Exposure therapy is often used to treat anxiety disorders (and related anxiety behaviors) and involves the exposure of the individual to their fear in situations that don’t involve any danger, helping them to overcome the anxiety in a safe and managed environment.
It may sound scary, but it couldn’t be more different – the very premise of exposure therapy is to help the individual feel safe and secure.
If you recognize that you have some REBs that you carry out, please take this opportunity to have a think about those behaviors. Ask yourself:
- Where do these behaviors stem from?
- Is there anything that I’m afraid of?
- Would I feel anxious if I weren’t able to carry these behaviors out?
- Do I feel unable to stop engaging in the behaviors?
- Do the behaviors hold my life back in any way?
Even if you’re fully or partially recovered, it’s important to dig deep and assess your behaviors to give you the greatest chance of staying safe and avoiding any potential relapses.
If you spot a REB in yourself that’s masquerading as a food quirk, I urge you, consider having a chat with a trusted person who can help you – like a counsellor, therapist or even a family member.
Not all food quirks are harmful, but they can contribute to insecurity and anxiety… and you deserve to live an effortless, carefree life.
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