Why Your Food Language Matters

close up image of french fries to depict why food language matters

I remember a few weeks ago, a friend and colleague stated, “I just don’t understand eating disorders”. Why would someone have an eating disorder? “I eat when I am hungry and if I am not hungry I don’t eat.” I recall laughing at the sincerity and the irony. She came from a place of good intent and curiosity. She had no idea why her food language matters.

People Just Don’t Get It

I have had many discussions with loved ones, peers, and professionals that truly are unable to grasp someone struggling with an eating disorder. I am a recovered eating disorder human, certified eating disorder specialist, certified eating disorder supervisor, licensed body positive facilitator, and licensed marriage and family therapist. It dawned on me; there is more to be done.

Fear Takes Control

Without a level of understanding and awareness, one becomes fearful and frustrated with the individual struggling with an eating disorder. We often fear the unknown. Someone unintentionally becomes oblivious of their own language and the way they discuss their personal relationship with food, as well as body.  Taking aside the focus on body, exercise, image, and beauty – language communicates our needs and wants. And the language we use around food matters.

Unfortunately, when someone is struggling with an eating disorder, language has been ripped away. As recovery progresses one is able to introduce new words to their vocabulary. Language becomes sharper, positive, and real. Listen to the way others discuss food and body. And listen to your own language.

How Would YOU Describe the Eating Disorder?

I begin sessions by asking how someone would describe the eating disorder (if they are able to identify it as an eating disorder).  If that feels uncomfortable, I have them artistically depict the eating disorder, as it varies from person to person. Some describe it as a monster in their head, an angel and devil (the eating disorder being the devil), a mental war inside, and others would define it as a friend.

One particular young lady drew their portrait with stitches on the mouth representing the eating disorder. I was appreciative for that individual sharing the drawing, as we were able to slowly remove those stitches. The image continues to resonate with me as it captured her true dynamic with the eating disorder. Utilizing food language in the therapeutic setting is crucial.

Harmful Food Language

I was out to dinner a few months ago and had ordered a dish the restaurant is known for. It was mac and cheese with Hot Cheetos sprinkled on top. Yes, this is a delicious and popular dish.  A man and woman who were next to me at the time, unfortunately, looked at my plate in horror.  This look was accompanied by the woman remarking, “does she know how many calories are in that meal, how can she eat that?”

I was completely taken aback by this women’s lack of awareness and by lack of awareness I mean ignorance.  At the time, I worked at a residential eating disorder facility, which after a long day of eating disorder sessions, the women’s remark almost made my head explode.  My anger quickly went to sadness. I was acknowledging her inability to recognize how powerful her words were. And just how shaming she was of my delicious meal.

How is your relationship with body and food? 

It is a loaded question but a question that is worth reflection. I have had responses differ but they all share a common thread. “No one likes their body, the love/hate relationship with the scale, some foods are good and others are bad, dieting helps maintain control etc.”

It isn’t necessarily the answer that I am often content with but I praise the ability of someone to be open and honest in their response.  If someone doesn’t have a response, I follow it by asking “how do you talk about food and body?” I use the word body with a purpose. Notice, I didn’t say yours, although that is important. The language we chose for others is telling as well.

Recovery and language compliment each other.

You are able to hear when the individual has truly embraced all that recovery entails. The words they use to describe themselves and their experiences are profound. The word impossible somehow shifts to possible.  Acceptance is mentioned in dialogue. It might not be the specific word but something along those lines.

Bring awareness to your own language.

I overhead a six-year-old at the grocery store point at the “good” and “bad’ items on the shelf.  Her mother didn’t correct her language but simply said, “Put the ‘healthy’ items in the basket”.  I’m not coming from a place of judgment but from a place of awareness. I am simply bringing mindfulness to the language we utilize, not only for ourselves but also for others around us.

Please consider: what is your food language?

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