What Are Food RitualsEver Wondered What Are Food Rituals?

Food Rituals are compulsive ways in which a person interacts with food that produces anxiety when not followed.  For instance, many people who have eating disorders take abnormally small bites of food, and when not allowed to do so will feel extreme anxiety.  Others may tear their food apart and will feel anxiety if not allowed to do so. Many rituals make it less stressful to eat food, or have the purpose of making one full before they finish the meal. Others focus on making the meal taste bad by letting cereal become soggy, letting food become cold, and burning the food or over-seasoning the food to create a bad taste.  The purpose of this is to discourage the desire to eat these particular foods in the future.  

Not All Rituals Are Created Equal

Other rituals focus on how the food is arranged on the plate, or the order or pattern in which food is eaten, including eating in a circular pattern, eating finger foods with utensils, and eating one food group at a time.  Some rituals include meticulous measurement, preparation or arrangement of food.  For those who engage in binge eating, the ritual can start with obtaining the food, the speed of eating it and so forth.

Some of these behaviors may sound familiar and many people either wonder if their eating behavior is a ritual. Others do not understand why these behaviors are classified as disordered. This is because these behaviors in themselves are not disordered. It is quite normal to “break” bread, and this is what may make it difficult to understand that tearing food can be problematic. 

The key concept is that these behaviors can be problematic.  Food rituals become ritualistic and problematic when the absence of them causes anxiety.  Many people have preferences for how they eat their food. The problem lies in what happens when we are deprived of doing so.  For many with eating disorders, extreme anxiety can result, which leads to further eating disordered behavior such restriction, binging or purging. 

Food Deprivation Is Not the Solution

There are a few things that can be done if you suspect food rituals in yourself someone else. First, honestly evaluate the purpose of the behavior.  Is its purpose for restricting, binging or purging? Does drinking water between each bite make you feel fuller faster, thus making it easier to restrict? If you aren’t sure what the purpose is, pay attention to how you feel when you don’t do the behavior.  Do you become anxious or uncomfortable? If so, it is probably a food ritual.

Second, if you do have food rituals, remind yourself that these behaviors are not helping you, but rather hurting you by causing you distress.  Engaging in the behavior may make you feel better in the moment, but in the long run, it will only strengthen the compulsion to do so just as someone who has OCD washing their hands for the second or third time may make them feel better in the moment, but it only strengthens the drive to compulsively wash their hands, robbing them of time and control over their behaviors. 

Third, know that you are in control and you can change the behavior.  Anxiety will result, but through relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing, you can learn to no longer fear the absence of the ritual, restoring normal eating patterns.  Anxiety’s normal pattern is to rise and fall, but it will not last forever.