I ask you to imagine someone with an eating disorder, who do you think of? Like most people, do you think of someone underweight, probably female, probably under 25?
But that's just not accurate. Whatever age, whatever size, whatever gender, food can be a real issue. According to the most recent statistics from the NHS, 1 in 20 people show signs of an eating disorder.
Although at this point I'd definitely describe myself as ‘recovered’ from my eating disorder, I'll never have a normal relationship with food. When I’m dealing with stuff in my personal life, my problems often flare up again. And at those times when I’m struggling I find work a hard place to be.
I’ve met a lot of people who want to help, but find it really hard to understand how.
So, I've put together a few pointers for them - and for you - if you want to make things a bit easier for people like me.
(A few of my colleagues who feel the same way, shared their experiences with me, and I’ve scattered their comments through, as I found they could say more than I could.)
1. Don't organise social activities solely based around food, drink or exercise
For some of people, these sorts of events can be really overwhelming. It may be that being around food and physical activity will trigger behaviours they are trying to avoid. Or it may just be that seeing others enjoy these situations without worry will make them feel terrible and like recovery will never be possible.
Workplace events like this may force people who struggle with their eating to isolate themselves from social events, or appear anti-social when they are just trying to get through the day.
It is unavoidable that these sorts of events happen, so try and be understanding if your colleague excuses themselves or leaves early. Don’t try and pressure them into attending if they seem uncomfortable and maybe once in a while organise an activity which others might feel more comfortable being involved with.
“I definitely found myself avoiding after work drinks all last year – and felt super anti-social and like I missed out on getting close to colleagues – but I just couldn’t handle it!”
“I also think it would be really helpful to suggest that if a team is going out for lunch, it’s decided as far in advance as possible where to go – and to go somewhere with plenty of choice.”
2. Don’t comment on their food choices
This is a really big one. I think this is so important I want it to be on the news.
You might think that you’re just making conversation while you wait your turn at the microwave or in the queue for the canteen, but you have no idea how difficult someone might have found putting their meal together. They might finally feel they've just got it right and then you say something like 'is that all your having?' and their meal, and possibly day, is ruined.
Also, a lot of people with eating problems find it very difficult to eat in front of people. We get told at therapy (if we're lucky enough to get it) that while our world revolves around what and how we eat, everyone else's does not. You commenting might provide evidence we are so desperately looking for that that is in fact, false.
“Eating in front of other people is problematic. I am also really paranoid that people will notice the speed at which I eat.”
3. Ditto exercise
Lots of people's problems with food/ diet/ weight / body shape overlap with some mixed up feelings about exercise. So maybe hold off evaluating someone's gym record too, yeah?
4. Be mindful of bringing treats in to the office
This is another one that's tricky to avoid. It's part of our culture to celebrate with cake, to show our colleagues we appreciate them with biscuits (and some of my best work has definitely been fuelled by waves of sugar induced energy).
But for anyone whose world revolves around food is going to find it really difficult to focus with a big plate of cake sat in front of them.
“The other thing I personally find difficult is when someone puts food on the table in a meeting and nobody eats it and it’s just THERE.”
Perhaps if you're buying a pack of biscuits because you've got a tough afternoon ahead, you could keep them on your desk or in your locker instead of a communal space? Or failing that is there somewhere a little bit out of the way that people don't have to walk passed it to get on with their day?
If you want to give your team a treat maybe some fruit instead of, or as well as, could work just as well? If you're expressing gratitude through food, why not cut out the middle man and actually say how you feel or send a thoughtful email instead?
“From my point of view, I find all the food lying around the office by far the hardest thing to deal with – but I’m not sure there’s much anyone can do about that really….”
5. Try to avoid diet-chat or body shaming around the office
In a world of the 5:2 diet, Fitbits and the side bar of shame you really can't blame anyone for feeling they should be on a constant upward fitness trajectory.
And when it’s everywhere you look, it can feel like everyone agrees and feels comfortable with the status quo.
But by evaluating everything you do and comparing your appearance to others out loud, you are inviting those who hear you to do the same to you, and therefore to themselves.
If you are feeling down or insecure about your body or what you are eating, I get that, believe me I do. But stating that you are fat, that this lunch is bad you are subscribing to the view the food and bodies fall into these distinct black and white categories, which I promise you, they don’t.
“I've heard people in the office discuss celebrity gossip sites or celebrities and be pretty critical of their appearance. They don’t seem to realise how hurtful it can be.”
Which leads me to my final point.
6. Acknowledge that ‘healthy’ means different things for different people
You might hold up an ideal of eating salad every day and always taking the stairs as your ultimate goal. But for others, fighting against those sorts of thoughts might be what they are trying to achieve.
Taking the lift, or having crisps for lunch might be a big step in letting go of the strict rules they have been living by and might actually be the ‘healthiest’ thing they have done for a while.
“Generally not saying things are ‘good’, ‘naughty’, etc. when you talk to anyone about food. It’s very normal to talk about treats and punishments, which isn’t really helpful.”
“Often the focus can be on exercise as a good thing – i.e. I saw the Run Every Day in Jan thing and thought ‘I bloody wish’!”
I know some of things will be just too hard to apply, and things aren't going to change all at once. Many of the things that make life hard if you have an eating problem are completely normal parts of every day life.
But that’s the thing about eating disorders, they make ‘normal’ life really hard.
And if you think this doesn't apply to you, please just remember the 1 in 20 statistic. Because if you think you don't know anyone with an eating problem, it's probably just because they haven't told you yet.