Eating disorders

Obsessions and rituals around eating

This section includes people describing their experiences of obsessive behaviours and rituals at the time when they were ill. Some people might find reading about these experiences distressing. All the material on this website is intended to support a better understanding of why these unhelpful behaviours in eating disorders happen, how to get help for them and to support genuine recovery from eating disorders.
Most people have experienced having thoughts or images in their mind that can be hard to get rid of. When it is impossible to get rid of these thoughts and images, or when they severely affect people’s daily lives, is when it becomes a problem.
Many young people we talked with felt that their early issues with food started to become more serious when they grew more “obsessive” and “compulsive”. A few people had been diagnosed with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) or had experienced general obsessions most of their life. These obsessions could be related to:
• Cleaning and washing, 
• Arranging things in a certain order or lined up in a particular way 
• Constant checking and other routines they felt they “needed” to repeat
• School work. 
Obsessions and compulsions were also linked to their eating disorder and many of the young people we spoke with discussed obsessive thoughts and compulsive rituals about eating and weighing Read more about how people overcame their obsessive thoughts and rituals; ‘Talking therapies’ and ‘Working towards recovery’.
The purpose of obsessions

When ill, obsessions often served a purpose which made people feel that they had to hold on them. Understanding the reasons behind obsessive habits can help people to start letting go of them. Some described how constant obsessing distracted them from negative things. Obsessive thoughts and behaviours were also linked to the habitual behaviours of eating disorders; restricting, bingeing, purging. Calorie counting and charting became something people did (and felt they had to do) routinely without thinking. Over time, obsessions could become extremely draining. People described how they felt trapped by the need to follow obsessive routines to feel safe. Emily said she was thinking, worrying and planning her routines 24/7. Some described how it felt like every minute of every day was consumed by them.
Elene described how the eating disorder became the only priority in life and James said how “nothing or nobody else matters to you”;
“If you’re watching like a film, you might not remember what you’re watching but you’ll remember every single moment if there’s a meal in the film.” -James
“I’d just [have] glazed eyes, brain would be thinking, ‘Food, food, food.’” -Andrew
Obsessive habits and rituals could take over a person’s life. It was difficult to understand what a negative impact the rituals had on their quality of life until later on, when looking back on the experiences. Different forms of talking therapies could help people to make sense of their obsessions and learn to live without them. 
Calorie counting and recording weight

A common obsession, particularly for people with anorexia nervosa, was the need to count and control calories. Eva said she recorded everything she consumed – even the water she drank. Annabelle described how calorie-counting became so automatic she could quote calories in any food item by heart. People recorded calories by writing them down or kept “a mental tally”. When ill, food became almost meaningless because eating was “a numbers game” and all that mattered was “input and output”, as Ewan put it. Often hand-in-hand with calorie counting went the need to constantly weigh oneself. A “bad number” in the morning could push people to restrict severely for the rest of the day.
People spent hours finding the foods with the lowest calories possible. Some people said this resulted in trips to the supermarket that could take hours' checking all the labels for different brands to find the one with the least calories but often leaving the shop not having bought anything. Andrew said he would always go down the same aisles and go round the supermarket in the same order. Fiona-Grace said she became obsessed by finding the ingredients with the least calories for a Bolognese sauce.
Once in treatment, people we spoke with were often given meal plans to follow, in order to gain weight safely. As many people said they had lost a sense of “normal” eating or portion sizes, meal plans helped them learn to eat well again. For some, following fixed meal plans and being weighed regularly could cause problems because it fed their obsessive tendencies. For them a less structured eating plan worked better. 
Eating rituals

Many of those we talked to ate at set times every day. They often organised their days around set meal or snack times and followed a certain ritual every time they ate something. They often ate very slowly and so a meal could take hours. Some would cut their foods into small pieces or did not want different foods touching each other on the plate. Others had to use specific cutlery and plates or set the meal table in a particular order. People could feel highly anxious unless they knew the full nutritional and calorie content of a meal, and to do this many people weighed all their foods. Elizabeth always had to leave half of her plate unfinished. These routines and rituals could help people feel in control.
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People often described themselves as being “obsessed with food”. Some of those had anorexia nervosa and didn’t even enjoy eating food. As they denied their bodies of their natural need for food, it became all they could think about. Reading recipes and cookbooks, watching cookery programmes, cooking for and “feeding” others could become a “substitute for eating”, as Katherine described.
As part of the illness, people could develop unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about food, eating and weight gain. People commonly developed ‘fear foods’ that they thought would cause immediate weight gain. Some described believing that they could gain weight just by thinking of or smelling food.
"A form of my compensatory behaviour was I had this notion to punish myself. I remember once I dreamt about eating food, because I was so underweight and I actually punished myself by exercising pretty frequently that morning because I actually dreamt about food. I actually believed in my head that I was going to gain weight from thinking about it.” Lauren
Different therapies helped people to make sense of these rituals and thoughts. Therapy helped people to understand that they were irrational, and had a very negative impact on their life and restricted what they could do. See ‘Talking therapies’.
Those who had bulimia nervosa said they used to hoard food in their bedrooms but not necessarily eat it. Annabelle had a collection of mini pots of jam, milk and sugar from hotels that she never ate and it would all go out of date. People often developed a compulsive need to do more exercise alongside an unhealthy relationship with food. People felt the need to exercise excessively to make up or punish themselves for eating. This behaviour was linked to having poor self-esteem and low confidence and got better once people’s view of themselves improved. For more information on improving self-esteem see Talking therapies’, ‘Self-help’ and ‘Working towards recovery’ see also ‘Exercise’
Recovering from obsessive habits
When people were recovering and began to understand and tackle some of the underlying reasons for their obsessive habits, these patterns began to ease off. They started to feel less need to keep to routines. Looking back, people saw how much time and energy the routines took up. Emily wishes she would’ve “thrown my energies into” other things.
People found many ways of getting over obsessions and routines through different behavioural, psychological and practical approaches covered in ‘Talking therapies’ and 'Working towards recovery’.

Last reviewed October 2018.


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