My flatmate's eating habits might be affecting my own...
August 14, 2014 8:00 PM   Subscribe

My flatmate has certain eating habits that could be negatively influencing my own, but of course it's not my place to comment on her eating habits. It's stressful. What can I do?

My flatmate eats lots of "diet"/"light"/"reduced-fat" foods, doesn't eat egg yolks, only eats 45-calorie bread (which is basically normal bread cut into thinner slices! What is the point?!), uses artificial sweeteners. She also goes on month-long "no sweets" plans, or month-long resolutions where she works out for 75 minutes every day-- all of which I find psychologically unhealthy and don't subscribe to. She has put food that she wants to keep herself from eating in my cupboard, but because I don't eat sugar-free diet food, so it just kinda ends up languishing there until she gets around to eating it. She has made one or two minor comments in passing about her own or other girls' body weights, or about her/my/others' food intake, which, although very, very infrequent, somehow makes me me feel uneasy... a bit policed, perhaps? I feel uneasy knowing that she keeps tabs on these things even if she might not be overtly commenting on it all the time.

I have had some anxiety-related behaviors crop up recently-- namely, I have a hard time keeping my food down and spend disproportionate amounts of time (like, hours... it interferes with my studying sometimes) regurgitating it. It's due to stress. I know this because when I'm away from my super-uptight, micromanaged school environment, or around my boyfriend instead of my flatmate, all the symptoms go away and I am content and don't have to waste all this time regurgitating my food. There is a psychological component to this behavior: I get disgusted with the food I'm eating because I haven't had a real appetite lately-- I'm physically hungry but not emotionally hungry (as in nothing "sounds" good to me even though I'll be lightheaded from hunger), so that mismatch contributes to this feeling of visceral discomfort that leads me to regurgitation.

To clarify, it's not bulimia: The food isn't acidic when it comes up; I'm not really "inducing" the purging-- it sort of just comes up on its own. (I think this is consistent with rumination syndrome.) I don't think that I'm fat. I haven't lost weight and I'm not trying to lose weight. I don't feel superior when I don't eat or regurgitate my food. I don't have dietary restrictions, although I tend to dislike sweets. I'm not secretive about how I eat, although I have noticed that I don't like eating around my flatmate, so instead of eating in the dining area, I'll take food back to my room, where I am also more "free" to regurgitate my food when I experience the physical sensation, since regurgitation isn't the most, uh, socially acceptable thing. I have also noticed that even the sound of my flatmate rummaging through the fridge or cupboards stresses me out, and I avoid being in the kitchen while she's there. I don't have a problem with eating or cooking in front of anybody else-- actually, I almost prefer that I eat around other people.

My school environment is very stressful and I have a handful of other unrelated stressors to deal with, so I acknowledge that I might be overreacting a bit to what is, frankly, none of my business. I can't even say with 100% confidence that my flatmate's behavior is truly affecting my own habits-- I didn't even put the two together until somebody commented that this could be the case. Anyway, I don't want to confront my flatmate because there isn't really much to confront her about. I have thought about moving out, but that's not practical and eating habits aside, my flatmate is a fantastic flatmate! But what can I do in the meantime? It simply isn't sustainable for me to keep up this anxious compulsion; it's a waste of time and I'd much rather keep all my food down and eat like a normal person. This is making me so miserable. Please help!

Other notes that I'm not sure make a difference: I don't like the idea of being on medication, there's absolutely zero chance that I'm pregnant, I exercise daily in moderation, and I only have one flatmate. My flatmate doesn't have an eating disorder as far as I'm aware, although I recognize that her behaviors aren't the healthiest, either.
posted by gemutlichkeit to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think that all you can do about your flatmate's behaviours is to enforce boundaries when they impinge directly on you. For example, you can say that she can't keep food in your cupboard anymore. You can stop her when she comments on other's people's (or your!) eating or weight or anything around you, and ask her not to do that as it makes you uncomfortable. You can continue to eat in a separate room from her (and maybe start inviting friends over for dinner semi-regularly so you still get the social aspect?)

But I don't think you can do anything about the fact your flatmate cares deeply about diet and has what sounds like some disordered thinking about weight. You can't help the fact she eats foods you think are stupid. You can only model more normal eating behaviours around her (which might be really helpful for her, actually), and try to change the way you think about what she does and eats. Maybe practice thinking about how upsetting it must be to live in her mind, where calories and exercise probably take up a huge amount of her psychological and physical energy, and where she is constantly feeling like she has to police herself.

As for the regurgitation, I don't know anything about that, so feel free to ignore me, but I think maybe you should talk to a doctor about it if you haven't already. At the very least, the fact that this is taking up hours of your time sounds like something you might want help with.
posted by lollusc at 8:12 PM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Clarification about what I said about changing your thinking:
It sounds like your main thoughts and feelings about her behaviour right now are annoyance and disdain. If you can replace those with compassion (which, I know, it's hard), you might find her easier to live with.
posted by lollusc at 8:15 PM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

In your place, I'd be a little worried I was setting myself up to develop an eating disorder -- feeling judged for your weight or eating, being around someone with disordered eating, and being generally stressed out is kind of a set-up that could lead that way. Do you have access to any sort of counseling or a Registered Dietician with experience working with people with eating disorders? I don't know that you'd necessarily need long-term intense therapy or anything, but it might be helpful to run this by someone who could help with reality-checking, evaluate the physical symptoms, and give you help developing healthier coping mechanisms.
posted by jaguar at 8:15 PM on August 14, 2014

I think you need to concentrate on your own eating behaviors and not concern yourself with the thickness of your flatmate's bread. Throwing up food after eating isn't a healthy habit to get into, the acidity of the vomit notwithstanding.
Can you seen a therapist? Is there anyway for you to decrease your class load or take other steps to moderate the other stress factors in your life?
If you don't like eatin around her, could you arrange to cook and eat with other friends?
posted by Ideefixe at 8:38 PM on August 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

The diet your flatmate is eating, up until the recent low carb/Paleo craze started, was considered a healthy diet and was recommended by many doctors (i.e. a low calorie, low fat diet, avoiding eggs due to concerns about cholesterol, artificial sweeteners instead of sugar, "diet" foods). Of course, nowadays, a lot of that thinking has come into question/become controversial/been actually proven scientifically inaccurate. However, many people were raised on the idea that this type of diet is a great healthy diet. Many people also find working towards goals like doing daily exercise or swearing off certain food groups for a month to be motivating and helpful in terms of helping them achieve their health goals. (I say this as a person who finds resolutions about diet like monthlong challenges to really work for me in keeping me on track diet wise… then again I also like to eat the thin bread slices and drink my coffee with Splenda, so… to each their own.)

Anyway, my point is, forget about her diet and exercise - she's doing what makes her happy and what she thinks will make her healthy. You've got to do the same for yourself. You're not happy with your current situation, and it sounds like it's getting in the way of you doing the things you need to do/want to do, and that means you need to get help in addressing it. Please do see your doctor about this. And if your flatmate does things that bother you, like putting food into your cabinets, politely ask her not to - try not to get into all your other thoughts about her diet and exercise behavior, just tell her what you'd like her to do. And if she says things that come off as kind of rude (like making sideways comments about food intake of other people), tell her that you don't appreciate those kinds of judgmental comments and would ask that she not comment on those things around you anymore. I don't think that would be an overreaction. Making implications that other people are eating too much or are overweight is pretty inappropriate and she deserves to get called out on it. But I don't think there's any conversation that you can have with your flatmate that will resolve your issue with the regurgitation if that is what you are implying with your question. That's something you'll need to address on your own.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:02 PM on August 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have had some anxiety-related behaviors crop up recently-- namely, I have a hard time keeping my food down and spend disproportionate amounts of time (like, hours... it interferes with my studying sometimes) regurgitating it. It's due to stress.

I don't know what to do about your flatmate but as a former stress barfer myself I have a couple tips that might help you with that:

1) Take 1 famotidine (aka Pepcid) pill at night before bed and 1 first thing in the morning. It's an over-the-counter (i.e. available without prescription) drug in the U.S. so I don't know if that counts as being "on medication" to you.

2) Never drink caffeine on an empty stomach. Always eat at least a small meal before consuming tea, coffee, soda, energy drinks, or caffeine pills.

Adopting those two habits almost completely eliminated my stress barfing even when my stress levels remained high.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:06 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, another thing that sometimes makes me barf frequently is post-nasal drip because it congeals on my gag reflex spot while I sleep. If you think that might also be an issue for you, I advise getting hypoallergenic dust mite pillow covers and taking 1 diphenhydramine (aka Benadryl) pill at night before bed and 1 loratadine (aka Claritin) every morning when you get up.

I'm not trying to minimize the role that stress plays in your barfing by suggesting these physical solutions -- I've just found personally that stuff that might only make me mildly nauseated in a non-stressed state will make me barf when I'm stressed. So if you minimize the physical factors as much as possible that should give you a bigger pre-barf range for your emotional factors to rise up against.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:16 PM on August 14, 2014

Best answer: Look, first I would say go to a doctor and rule out a physical cause. I know you're pretty sure it's psychological, but I would go make extra sure.

Then, as a woman who has known a lot of women (and some men) with eating disorders across a spectrum of stages, I would say that you might think about changing your living situation if you can. For some reason focusing on controlling eating/exercise is a very common maladaptive way of dealing with stress (whether it's bulimia or anorexia or exercise addiction or orthorexia which I think a lot of ostensibly paleo /vegan/fitness types actually have). And for some other reason, eating disorders to seem to "cluster"* -- which is not to say they're contagious, necessarily (maybe people prone to eating disorders just naturally flock together for other demographic reasons) but you already strongly suspect that this woman's issues/behavior is negatively affecting your life, so why not simply get out of that situation if you can?

Think of it this way, what if your roommate were, say, a binge drinker? Not cripplingly alcoholic, but someone whose alcohol use negatively affected your life (coming home late at night, loudly, for example). You noticed that a lot of the negative effects from this went away when you stayed with your boyfriend (you get a full night's sleep and function much better). Wouldn't that be enough to look around for another situation?

posted by pocketfullofrye at 9:16 PM on August 14, 2014

I'm physically hungry but not emotionally hungry (as in nothing "sounds" good to me even though I'll be lightheaded from hunger), so that mismatch contributes to this feeling of visceral discomfort that leads me to regurgitation.

I've often felt like I'm physically hungry even though nothing "sounds good" to me — and I've never thrown up as a result. What you're doing is not normal. It raises a clear red flag, and you need to go to a doctor instead of settling for a diagnosis from random internet commenters. I find it pretty disturbing and inexplicable how you spend a whole paragraph on your roommate's choice of bread and eggs and sweeteners and exercise regime — before telling us that you seem to be almost-but-not-quite bulimic. I'm not qualified to diagnose you, and anyone who is qualified will have no business diagnosing you here. Go to a doctor. At minimum, being physically healthy requires eating plenty of nutritious food every day, so if you're rejecting a lot of your food then it would seem to be common sense that this is a serious medical problem.
posted by John Cohen at 9:47 PM on August 14, 2014 [16 favorites]

Oh god, I understand. I was sharing a place with one of my best friends, who is also incredibly judgy. Not at me generally, and only occasionally about food. But I am hyper-sensitive to being judged about my food choices, and it really did a number on me.

I'm honestly not sure what I could have done, and we no longer live together (but are still close friends). If you want to keep living with her, I think the only things that might help are:

1) Push back when she expresses opinions about food you disagree with. Not from a 'you are wrong' perspective, but in an 'every body is different' sort of way. I felt much better, for example, when my friend commented that she couldn't eat as much dairy as I did, because it was 'so much dairy', and I pointed out that it was less than a latte.

2) Be less judgy of her. I think us judgy types have a habit of believing that everyone is judging us as much as we are judging them. They probably aren't. I think the fact that she hides her treats in your cupboard means that she believes that you have a healthy relationship with food. I wouldn't trust my treats in the cupboard of someone who might eat them.
posted by kjs4 at 9:51 PM on August 14, 2014

And I agree that you should talk to a doctor about you vomiting. That sounds unfun.
posted by kjs4 at 9:52 PM on August 14, 2014

Response by poster: I've gone to a doctor. It truly isn't bulimia. It's more like the food doesn't even really get down to my stomach and is physically uncomfortable.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 9:54 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sounds like what your flatmate is doing is trying to adhere to the low fat, low calorie, fake sweeteners 'healthy' diet of the 90s and 2000s. As another poster mentioned, a lot of the 'low fat' craze is being questioned (or simply refuted) now - but it's still quite a prevalent way of thinking. So, it just sounds like she's trying to establish a 'healthy' lifestyle and healthy habits, but is falling off the bandwagon now and then - as many do when they try to implement it all at once or give themselves lofty fitness goals.

Also, I too used to hide my low-fat 'goodies' in my roomie's cabinet simply because I knew he wouldn't touch them, and I would forget about them for a while. That meant I didn't eat them so quickly and got a nice surprise later when I'd rediscover them (or be reminded of them). It was wonderful. My roomie wasn't bothered by it in the slightest when I told him why I did it - he wasn't really bothered by it to begin with - just baffled. Does it still bother you, having learned this fairly harmless reason? If it does, simply ask that she stop using your cabinet space.

Honestly, I don't see anything particularly alarming about your flatmates behavior. However, I understand that doesn't mean it's not affecting you in some profound way. IANYD, but I think the stress in other aspects of your life is primarily the cause of the symptoms you described. The insecurity you see in your flatmate about diet/weight could have caused it to manifest as stress-purging (instead of say, stress-migraines) in you.

FWIW, the physical symptoms you've described I've experienced during stress and with a history of a binging/purging eating disorder. If the food is coming back up without accompanying stomach acid, you are at risk of nutritional deficiencies. The food isn't sitting in your digestive system long enough for nutrients to be derived from it. Obviously that's a problem and you may need to see a doctor if you're not getting enough nutrition to maintain your health.

I suggest inviting friends over to have meals with you, or going out. There's no reason to force yourself to eat in her presence if it bothers you so much. I also suggest seeking out a therapist or a friend you can speak candidly with to help you get a handle on the stress that's fueling all of this.

Good luck.
posted by stubbehtail at 11:01 PM on August 14, 2014

Maybe you just really need to live somewhere else, in your own place. It's your body and your sanity. School is stress enough, you need to feel safe and comfortable when you are at home.
posted by mareli at 2:27 AM on August 15, 2014

Best answer: Hey there - I'm a longtime sufferer of rumination syndrome. It started when I was about 10 and going through a super stressful period in my family (lots of daily violence, periods of homelessness) and then never went away. There is a simple practice to treat this condition, so skip to the bottom if you want to read about it.

It really does sound this period you are in is stressful to the point where it might be inducing the rumination response. Overeating can make it worse, so if it becomes a larger problem you can break your meals into small parts and be aware as you are eating to try to stop early.

Then, and most importantly, try to find ways to reduce stress in your life. Can you prioritize? Is there any non-essential activity you can just take a break from? It's great that you are exercising, are you also making time to just read or hang out with friends?

And as for medication - no worries, if there was something that worked I'd be on it. There is lots of evidence that slow, practiced breathing with your diaphragm can treat rumination syndrome. This link describes how to do it, and says the success rate is 80-90%, I don't know how well-verified that is. You have to do it while eating, and that will get the food to where it needs to be.
posted by thelastpolarbear at 5:14 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I feel like I might throw up, I sip water(or tea) slowly. It helps soothe the muscles that do the barfing.

I would avoid your roommate in the kitchen or while either of you is eating. If that's really difficult, consider relocating.
posted by theora55 at 7:14 AM on August 15, 2014

I've gone to a doctor. It truly isn't bulimia. It's more like the food doesn't even really get down to my stomach and is physically uncomfortable.

I think the concern is more that this non-bulimia situation, combined with stress and your roommate's "contagious" food-anxiety, may start leading toward your restricting food much more.
posted by jaguar at 7:31 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

It might be helpful to look into food allergy testing. Someone I know has a wicked sensitive digestive system and half a million food allergies. If they eat something that doesn't agree with their body, it comes back up, often very soon after eating, even immediately. Sometimes it gets stuck going down and then comes back up. They've been doing a lot better since they had allergy testing and started avoiding the worst offenders.
posted by carrioncomfort at 7:38 AM on August 15, 2014

The only thing that seems even conceivably problematic in your roommate's behavior is what you vaguely describe as "commenting on your food intake" which could be something as innocuous as saying "wow that's a big burger!" So you really don't give us enough to go on.

But honestly it seems like you are really in denial about a serious problem you have. Anytime you routinely retire to your room so you can regurgitate your meal in privacy ... I'm sorry, that's a disorder.
posted by jayder at 9:09 AM on August 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

To me it sounds like your anxiety is manifesting as barfing, which is something that several people I know have dealt with. Can you pursue treatment for your anxiety? I know therapy takes a lot of time, which it sounds like you don't have, and I know you don't like the idea of medication, but surely you also don't like the idea of regurgitating your food...

If your flatmate is making comments about your food intake or doing something specific that makes you think she is policing you, ask her not to and see how that goes; if you just have a vague sense that you're being judged, well, treatment for anxiety might help with that too.
posted by mskyle at 9:27 AM on August 15, 2014

I'm always happy to judge people, and I think your roommate's relationship with food is messed up. I also think she's not doing anything wrong -- just living her life with neuroses about food. I agree that it's not your place to try to change her habits and thinking.

It would be reasonable for you to ask her as a favor to accommodate your sensitivities. You'd need to explain briefly that you have a lot of anxiety around food, nutrition, and weight, and you feel more anxious when the conversation turns to those things. There shouldn't be any whiff criticism -- just a request to help you out.

Also, if you think it would help for you two to keep your food separate, you can ask for that. Again, she's not at fault. Because of your issues, you'd be better off with separate food storage, and would she be willing to accommodate you in that way?

These changes might allow you to feel more comfortable in your present living situation, but they won't help your underlying problem, which is anxiety. I agree with others that you need to get help. Your high level of anxiety is so terribly uncomfortable to live with; you can get some relief from that. And your physical health would benefit a lot if you could manage your stress in a way that didn't require vomiting. Please get some help in taking care of yourself. Even if you lived alone with nobody observing you or saying/doing things that set you off, you'd still be living with terrible stress and serious eating problems, and only you can take a step toward making it better.
posted by wryly at 1:00 PM on August 15, 2014

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