Helping people with 'a problematic relationship with food''
April 18, 2010 3:00 PM   Subscribe

My best friend and his girlfriend both seem to have a rather unhealthy relationship with food. This isn't currently at a critical level for either of them, but I think in the past it has been, and I'm worried that it could get like that again. I'm particularly concerned that they rely on each other quite heavily for emotional support and that in this area they may not be best placed to help each other. Am I right to gently suggest to each of them that they seek proper help for this? What resources could I refer them to, or how could I suggest they might best go about getting the support they need? We're in the UK.

He's been my friend for a long time, and I've always known he had a slightly problematic approach to eating. He was quite overweight when we were at university, which in retrospect may have been because he was binge eating due to stress. In the year following university he lost a lot of weight by going on a very strict diet and starting to exercise a lot; there wasn't on the surface of it anything to be concerned about, but I got a bad 'vibe' from the anxious way he would talk about the diet, and the fact that he seemed to be hungry and miserable all the time. This was only heightened when I found out that about once a week he would eat a massive bag of cookies and then have to lie down because he felt sick.

I told him that I was concerned about the way he ate, but didn't push it too hard. Then about a year and a half ago he started getting very depressed, gave up on the diet, and started bingeing quite a bit. I don't know exactly what quantities of food were involved, because it would happen in his room and he was quite secretive about it, but it culminated in his giving me all of his money and bank cards and asking me to supervise all of his purchases so that he would stop buying huge quantities of food.

He was treated for the depression but although I suggested that he should be getting specific help directed at the eating problem, this never happened. Since then the depression has improved, though not completely abated, and he has started a relationship with his current girlfriend who now lives with us. She's lovely, and I know that he's talked to her a good deal about his various problems. Because of this I have tried to bug him a little bit less about how he's feeling, his doctor's appointments, and so on. This has in general worked very well, and he seems to be a lot happier. However, I started to notice that he didn't seem to have talked to her much about the fact that eating had sometimes been somewhat charged for him, and occasionally lied to her when the question arose (when, for example, she asked him why I hadn't been able to get him an Easter egg last year.)

The other day I had a conversation with her which made a bit of sense of this, in which she told me that there have been several times in the past when she's ended up eating very little for a considerable period of time because of various emotional troubles she was having. Once it got to the point where people were very concerned about her and her friends used to have to do various things to make it easier for her to eat, like preparing meals for her on small plates because looking at a large plate with food on it made her feel sick, or taking her out to restaurants and sharing a meal with her because she couldn't contemplate eating a whole meal. She eventually realised what she was doing and stopped because she realised she could end up in hospital, but not before it got to the point where she was only eating every couple of days.

I did suggest to her that although it wasn't currently a problem, she might want to try to deal with it before it became a problem again, and although I think part of her agreed with this, she also said that she wasn't sure she wanted to deal with it because: "This is something I do well"; "I'm worried that if I don't have periods in my life where I stop eating, I'll end up fat"; "What will I do to feel in control of my problems if I don't do this?" I answered these questions as best I could, but they were major red flags for me that this isn't something that has resolved itself.

Now, although she has been very supportive of his other problems, she understandably finds it difficult to talk to my friend about his eating 'issue', because even thinking about him eating like that makes her feel sick. This is such a barrier that the first couple of times he told her about it, she didn't even remember that he'd told her. I'm also concerned that conversely, he may not be the best support for her, as he has not yet accepted that the part of his eating cycle where he radically restricts his food intake (not to the point of starvation, but to the point where it takes up a great deal of his energy and focus) is also problematic. I've been present when she's complained that she was getting fat, and he's suggested that she go on a diet and that he will help her to work out how few calories she needs, which concerned me even before I learned about her past problems in this area.

Meanwhile, he's been more relaxed about his food intake and had less time for exercising since she moved in, and so he's been gaining a little weight again. She told me that he's been lying awake at night because he's so unhappy about this, because it 'doesn't feel like his body' etc.

1. Am I right to worry about them? How worried should I be? Please tell me about this.

2. If I am, I figure the best I can do may be to gently but persistently suggest that they seek help for this. But what should I be suggesting? They have very little money for therapy (she's not working, he's on about £25k a year, we live in London), and the NHS isn't always best at dealing with problems that don't seem altogether current. They are both a bit touchy about the 'eating disorder' label, which I'd like to respect as much as I can.

Throwaway email at
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If they haven't explicitly asked you for help, there's not much you can do. By broaching the subject purely as a listening ear you show yourself to be a good, supportive friend, and you can make gentle suggestions if you think they would be welcome, but ultimately this is something that these people will have to figure out how to deal with on their own, in their own time.

I think that they could stand some couple's counseling, and that might be something you could recommend (tactfully) if they seem truly unable to help themselves or each other.\

Getting involved on any other level is going to have a serious impact on your friendship, with the downside of probably not being very effective.
posted by hermitosis at 3:07 PM on April 18, 2010

Certainly you're right to worry about it, as you are their friend.
This is what friends to, they care for, and sometimes fret about each other :)
BUT the real question here is can you do anything to really help them, and I feel the answer is no.
You can make gentle suggestions, like the three of you going out and exercising and eating healthy together, thereby providing a healthy role model, but when the rubber hits the road for the hard work, they must decide to change and they must make the change.
I would suggest a gentle, but watchful arms length, with a shoulder to lean on and ears to listen.
posted by willmize at 3:09 PM on April 18, 2010

There were a lot of good answers in this thread, can't link as I'm on my phone, sorry.
posted by ellieBOA at 5:46 PM on April 18, 2010

Yes, it sounds like they both have disordered eating habits.

But, hermitosis has it - unless they ask you for help, the only thing you can really do is be a supportive friend. You can silently set a good example in your own eating habits; and if one of them mentions that s/he is doing X disordered behavior, you can gently say that you don't think it will serve her or him in the long run. Be a sane, nonjudgmental voice that they can always count on and trust.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:31 PM on April 18, 2010

All you can do is listen. They'll get help when they want to get help. I've helped my spouse lose weight when he wants to eat healthy, but I don't bring it up when he doesn't. The least helpful thing is when someone else gives either of us unsolicited eating advice.
posted by kpht at 6:43 PM on April 18, 2010

this is none of your business unless they ask your for help. you're their friend and roommate, don't be their nag.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:04 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, you could be construed as intrusive, but you give a back story and a context that is helpful. I think you have done a good job so far in being your friend's back stop when he has asked you to be, and I think it is only natural that you ponder your role now. My dearest friend exhibits the same behaviour as your friend. I have learned to be absolutely open about food issues with her [I'm skinny, yet food politics is a major part of my developmental formation so I get it].

Modeling appropriate eating morning and night, going food shopping for the week together/ making a roster for who's cooking which night [if that's what you do as housemates] sets an agenda of the proper focus of food in one's daily/weekly life. Buying healthy eating recipe books and marking what you would like to eat together, being enthusiastic about healthy eating/food markets, setting a table properly each evening [or morning, breakfast is the way to go for health I feel] and making the meal table a central part of life may help to start neutralising its angsty elements. People with food issues really benefit from being around others with healthy habits because their calibration of what is normal is so far off base.

Being open with both people, possibly being open to having a conversation with both at the same time, about the issues that food bring up is important. I'm not religious, but in our home we sit down to a meal every day and 'bless our food' in all aspects - that we are choosing to nourish and love ourselves with good food and good feelings [it's not solemn, rather a humorous, sometimes it's a dramatic listing of those who helped us get this amazing meal/how many tomatoes didn't make it due to our gardening failures/how we laboured against the evil machinations of the failing oven/ thanks hairy bikers for the recipe/ mrs Oliver for the lemons we nicked from her tree etc]. Blessing our food enables us to say things to each other that we might not otherwise have the moment or courage to say and it acts as an affirmation of right thinking/re-training.

Ultimately people who self-soothe with food or lack of food probably need help negotiating the issues with food that are beyond your reach. But the way we are with food in their presence and our caring attitude to the journey they are on with this struggle is a start. Good on you for caring so much to write this post.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:10 AM on April 19, 2010

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