Reducing Mealtime Stress During Eating Disorder Recovery

If a person is suffering from an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or variations of these, they will likely find that mealtimes are highly stressful. As humans need food in order to survive, no matter how stressful eating feels, it is something that we have to do — on a very regular basis.

A person with an eating disorder has to eat, but there are things we can do that can reduce the anxiety associated with eating.

Mindfulness Techniques to Try Before a Meal

Mindfulness techniques can be extremely useful in helping a person with an eating disorder to stay calm before a meal. The additional benefit of mindfulness techniques is that they allow us to activate the prefrontal cortex — that is the part of the brain that helps us to think logically and rationally. It is also involved in the decision-making process and when we are thinking clearly we make better decisions

When a person with an eating disorder begins to feel stressed before eating, the fear and stress associated with eating tends to put the fight-flight response area of the brain into the driver’s seat. This is not ideal as it means that a heightened panic and flight response will cause the sufferer to feel less able to deal with eating. We are also evolved to feel less hunger when we are in fight or flight mode. It is important that a person with an eating disorder stay out of fight or flight mode as they approach a mealtime. Mindfulness and meditation techniques can help with this.

A quick mindfulness exercise is to sit, close your eyes, and count the seconds it takes you to inhale then count the seconds as you exhale. Each time see if you can make the inhale and exhale take a little longer. You only need to do this for a couple of minutes for it to put you in a calm and relaxed mood. This is a much better mood with which to approach a mealtime.

Meal Support

For a person with an eating disorder, eating food can be as scary as doing something like holding a snake. Imagine if someone told you to go into a room and hold a snake. You might be scared before you went in (that is how a person with an eating disorder can feel before eating) and when you were in the room you would probably wish that you had someone else in there with you to tell you that it was going to be okay and remind you that the snake was not going to hurt you.

When eating a meal, it is really helpful if a person with an eating disorder doesn’t have to eat alone. Having someone there to give encouragement and compassion while they eat can help reduce tension and stress immensely.

If the patient is a child, then a parent is the perfect person to provide meal support, In fact, children and adolescents with eating disorders should not be left alone to eat until they are well into recovery. Parents are encouraged to use the principles of Family-Based Treatment. This includes providing support for their child at every meal and making sure that they are eating all that they are supposed to. If you are a parent, there are lots of resources that are available to you so that you can learn how best to offer meal support for your child.

If the sufferer is an adult, it can be harder to find them support for every single meal. Even if a partner is present, he or she will likely not be able to be with the adult sufferer at all times. There are options available here. If you live in an area where in-person meal support is available this can be a great option. Some dieticians offer in-person meal support during treatment sessions.

You can also recruit friends and family members to help. Having an eating disorder is a serious mental illness, and nothing to be ashamed of. Food is the most important part of treating an eating disorder, as many of the symptoms associated with eating disorders are actually symptoms of starvation.

Another option is online meal support. This is available at a low cost from anywhere so long as you can get an internet connection. The benefit here is that no matter where you are, you can know that you will get meal support that will help you to cope with the stress of eating. Online meal support or any sort of online therapy cannot take the place of in-person treatment. However, you should always be checking in with a dietician or eating disorder professional if you think that you need to do that too.

Many adults with eating disorders will find that they can successfully piece together meal support for all meals via a mixture of family, friends, professional and online meal support. A large part of recovering from an eating disorder is managing your schedule so that you never miss a meal and you always have time to eat in a calm manner. Additionally, you should be looking at who can be there to help you keep calm at mealtimes and arranging meal support as you need it.


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Additional Reading:

Mindful Eating
Intuitive Eating
Questions Often Asked By Intuitive Eating Newcomers
Vegetarianism, Veganism, and Eating Disorders
Vacationing With An Eating Disorder
Eating at Restaurants While in Recovery from an Eating Disorder
Relapse Warning Signs

Meal Support Resources:

AEDRA – Online meal support
Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists – In person meal support
Meal Planning for Eating Disorder Recovery

Written by Tabitha Farrar – 2017