A Coffee Is Not a Meal: the Conversations that Can Trigger EDs

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Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that are common among young people. The good news is that, with professional support, most young people can make a full recovery, reclaiming their physical and mental well-being.

But that doesn’t mean recovery is always easy. The thinking patterns and feelings that underpin eating disorder behaviours can be hard to overcome, and sometimes small things can cause those thoughts to return, bringing with them an urge or desire to restart disordered eating behaviours.

These things – they might be events, emotions, conversations, or environmental cues – are known as triggers. Triggers can make the recovery process harder and require more energy. They can also cause people to restart disordered eating behaviours after periods of recovery.

As family, friends, or community members of young people in recovery from eating disorders, it’s important to be aware of conversations that could trigger eating disorders and take care to avoid them.

A lot of the time, you may not know that someone you are speaking with is in recovery – so we need to stay away from these conversations at all times.

Moreover, many triggering conversations can also contribute to the development of eating disorders, while a speech that promotes a positive food culture helps to create communities that protect against them.

This blog outlines some conversations that could trigger EDs in young people and adults and how we can create a culture of positive speech about food.

A Coffee Is Not a Meal

Young people with eating disorders often restrict their diet by missing out on meals. Recovery usually involves developing a routine of balanced and regular meals that can provide them with the energy and nutrients they need.

But eating regular meals isn’t always easy for young people in recovery. They may experience emotional distress when they feel like they are not following their previous food rules, including feelings of anxiety or shame. These feelings take energy, commitment, and often support to overcome.

For young people who have had eating disorders, conversations that normalise – or even encourage – missing meals can cause these thoughts and feelings to return.

For example, telling someone that you will have a coffee instead of breakfast reinforces the idea that not eating breakfast is normal or the ‘right’ thing to do.

It can trigger negative feelings about eating regular meals that may lead to disordered eating behaviours returning – or make them harder to change.

Counting Calories

Young people and adults with eating disorders often become preoccupied with the amount of calories in the food they eat. They may restrict their calories as a way of maintaining a certain body shape or weight, calculating how many calories they consume in a meal or in a day.

This often means choosing what food to eat on the basis of how many calories it has rather than the food they would intuitively like to eat.

When recovering from eating disorders, young people may learn to eat intuitively – to choose food that they enjoy and that makes them feel nourished, setting aside the calorie content.

Recovery also involves understanding, and believing, that calories are not bad and overcoming feelings of judgement and shame.

When someone who has or has had an eating disorder hears other people speaking about the calories in food, it can reinforce the idea that calories are important.

Statements like “Wow, that has a lot of calories” or “This meal is low calorie” or conversations about the calories used during exercise could trigger a return to calorie counting or choosing foods based on the number of calories they contain. 

Commenting On How A Person Eats

Comments about how someone is eating are, unfortunately, not uncommon. You may think it’s normal to tell someone they have taken a lot of food, or that they are not eating very much. 

However, these conversations can be very damaging. They can cause a person to think that they are being judged or valued on how much they eat, sometimes leading to feelings of anxiety or shame about eating.

It might make them feel like they ‘should’ be eating less, or make them want to eat secretively to avoid being watched or judged. 

For someone recovering from an eating disorder, it’s important that they feel like they can eat without judgement or criticism from others. Our care and appreciation for others should be based on their whole person, regardless of the way that they eat.

This sense of unconditional support can make it easier for someone to eat more freely and decrease the anxiety and distress they may associate with food. 

Speaking About Bodies

Many eating disorders are underpinned by an over-evaluation of body shape and weight. This means that someone places a lot, or all, of their self-value in how their body looks or how much they weigh, rather than appreciating other parts of their identity, like their personality or the way that they treat others.

When someone over-evaluates their shape and weight, they can become preoccupied with their body being a certain way and experience distress, shame, and feelings of worthlessness if they perceive their body to be different.

This often leads to extreme diets or other restricting and purging behaviours to try and change aspects of their body.

Conversations about other people’s bodies or weight can reinforce ideas about their importance. We should not be commenting that someone has lost or gained weight, that they have a ‘good figure’, or that we want to lose weight ourselves.

All of these conversations can make someone feel like their body or weight matters and trigger disordered eating behaviours. 

Body Positivity and Positive Speech about Food

Creating positive speech about food and eating isn’t just about avoiding triggering conversations; it’s also about reframing our thinking, removing judgement and shame about the way we eat, and talking about food in a positive way.

This involves understanding, challenging, and confronting our own biases and stigma about food and weight. It requires understanding that there is no ‘bad’ food, that it’s okay to eat a large meal with all different food groups, and that showing restraint over eating isn’t a skill or moral good.

It means that we don’t judge ourselves or other people by their food choices or by their appearance, and we don’t form ideas about the ‘right’ way to eat.

Equally, our conversations should promote the understanding that all body shapes and sizes are accepted, regardless of how parts of the media or social norms value aspects of our appearance.

Shame and judgement about eating and appearance are deep in many parts of society, and confronting them requires active attention and effort. This means we have to be careful about what we say and let other people know when they have said something unhelpful or harmful.

While mistakes will be made, with collective effort and care, we can create new conversations, avoid triggering speech, and overcome stigma about food, body shape, and weight.

The Wave Clinic – Transformative Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist mental health support for teenagers, young adults, and families. Our expert-led programs are trauma-focused, taking a whole-person approach to recovery that emphasises education, inner healing, and life skills development.

We give young people the space and support to reconnect with themselves, explore new life paths, and grow in self-confidence and self-worth.

Built upon our core values of inclusivity and fairness, our programs aim to challenge implicit stigma while offering exemplary treatment to all young people, regardless of their presenting issues.

We focus on planning and building better futures while providing the top-tier psychological and medical care that young people need.

If you would like to find out more about our programs, contact us today. We’re ready to support your family.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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