What Is Really Underneath My Loved One’s ‘Food Refusal’?

Food. A basic necessity for survival and functioning. For many of us, it is a joyful, pleasant experience.

For someone with an eating disorder, food is coupled with sheer terror. Yet, it is an essential ‘medicine’ and the key to maintaining life.

Your loved one’s ‘non-compliance’ surrounding food may outwardly look like an act of defiance, resistance or unwillingness to engage in recovery. Underneath the surface, it is far deeper. Your loved one is most likely grappling with debilitating fear that makes eating feel impossible.

But what lies beneath the terror?

Food feels like a life-threatening situation.

For someone living with an eating disorder, the fear that comes with fighting their own mind feels similar to being faced with a life or death situation. Food is perceived as unsafe and terrifying.

The distress is so difficult to fight that often a person may act out in a fight or flight response or completely shut down and freeze. This could look like running away, hurting themselves, kicking, screaming, punching, dissociating, shutting down, or curling up into a ball. 

Backlash from the eating disorder mindset.

Your loved one feels torment and retaliation from their eating disorder mindset for doing, or even considering doing, the thing they are being told not to do (consuming food). This negative rhetoric is constant and is often heightened during meal times. It is in these moments that your loved one needs you to be there more than ever. Remind them they are loved and safe.

An inability to trust their body.

For someone with an eating disorder, being unable to trust their body feels frightening, real and is always present. Fear that comes with any sort of body changes/weight gain creates distress.

As a carer, it is important to be a safe haven and a consistent source of trust around food.

Rather than focusing on the food or body changes, help bring attention to the present moment and hold space for your loved one whilst they sit in their distress.

An internal war between wanting to believe something different and step into life and listening to what feels safe, comfortable and provides (temporary) relief (the eating disorder self).

This is the reality for those with an eating disorder. Every second of every day our loved ones have to choose to trust in something other than their eating disorder. A mental duel is going on inside of them.

Negative beliefs about themselves.

These often prevent your loved one from feeling as if they are worthy, deserving or capable of doing what they view as impossible.

Something else may be going on.

Has your loved one had a particularly hard day? A hard week?

Is there something going on which is causing them to feel overwhelmed, stressed, sad or burdened?

Paying attention to what is going on for them may give you an indication of why food is particularly hard at this moment.

Often the eating disorder mindset uses situational evidence as a reason to decrease or ban food.

The mental repercussions/abuse they are going to endure after eating.

Knowingly entering a situation that is going to cause psychological distress and abuse after the fact is terrifying.

Often, it may be helpful to be present with your loved one even after the meal is done. Remind them they are safe. Being alone with their mind is often the most isolating time of all.

Distraction/self-soothing techniques may be useful and might include going for a drive, wrapping your loved one in a blanket, watching a favourite TV show, playing video/card games or table tennis, going for a short walk, cuddling a pet, playing with a sensory item or stress ball, and soaking in a foot bath.

When it comes to eating disorders, food is commonly terrifying. With your support, compassion, and patience your loved one can re-learn to trust in food, their body and themselves again.

EDFA is dedicated to providing lived-experience support, information, validation, education and advocacy to empower families and carers in their journeys with their own loved ones.

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