How To Be Mindful About Eating Disorders In The Workplace

Holistic Psychotherapist By Natalie Buchwald, LMHC
Holistic Psychotherapist
Natalie Buchwald, LMHC is the founder and clinical director of Manhattan Mental Health Counseling. As a practitioner of holistic psychotherapy, Natalie’s treatment approach places an emphasis on the mind-body relationship and is both experiential and pragmatic.
Hand with Fork and Knife and Empty Plate

Image by Yaroslav Danylchenko / Stocksy

It's National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and today we're introducing a topic that often gets overlooked: eating disorders in the workplace. Here, Natalie Buchwald, LHMC, offers tips on not only how to recognize the signs of a workplace eating disorder but also how to support someone who may be struggling.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness with at least 30 million people suffering from one in the U.S. As a holistic psychotherapist, I see an alarming connection between the workplace and eating disorders, particularly in high-stress industries.

In a world where we're obsessed with getting more done, some people can wind up with disordered eating in the interest of accomplishing more. Others may turn to an eating disorder in a particularly stressful period at work or in their home life.

Whether your job is particularly stressful or not, it's important to be aware of the well-being of the person you spend eight hours sitting beside. Our professional success should never overshadow our physical and emotional well-being. To that end, here are some signs to help determine whether you or someone you work with is suffering from an eating disorder and what to do about it.

Who is at risk?

Per research published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there are several core risk factors where eating disorders are concerned:

  • Genetic disposition. If your family has a history of disordered eating, you are at a much higher risk of developing it yourself.
  • Personality traits. If you are a perfectionist, a neurotic person, lack confidence, or are particularly impulsive, you have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.
  • Cultural pressure, particularly exposure to unrealistic beauty standards. 
  • The presence of other mental illnesses. According to nonprofit Eating Disorder Hope, anxiety has a particularly close link to disordered eating, as does depression. 

In other words, eating disorders are complex. They're usually the result of multiple background factors playing off one another. While stress is not the root cause of eating disorders, a period of chronic stress tends to intensify or trigger eating disorders.

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Recognizing an emerging workplace eating disorder.

One misconception I frequently encounter is that an eating disorder must, by nature, involve either bingeing or purging. The truth is that these are only a cross-section of disordered eating. Here are multiple ways one might develop a harmful relationship with food.

  • Anorexia nervosa. Intense fear of weight gain, often manifesting as severely limited food intake, avoidance of eating in public, or binge/purge behaviors. 
  • Bulimia nervosa. Characterized by extreme binge eating periods followed by purging. 
  • Binge eating disorder. Eating large, unhealthy quantities of food in response to stress, which causes a victim to lose control. 
  • Purging disorder. Control of one's weight or shape through purging behaviors. 
  • Night eating syndrome. Excessive eating at night. 
  • Orthorexia. Excessive exercise coupled with an obsessive fixation on avoiding "unhealthy" foods to the extent that it disrupts your daily life. 
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. A Lack of interest in food or particular food groups that results in undereating. 
  • Rumination disorder. Regurgitating and re-consuming food.

Aside from the fact that many of the above disorders tend to be triggered or intensified by stressful environments and may be co-occurring with other mental illnesses, each is marked by adherence to a rigid, unhealthy set of food-based rules. The first step in treating an eating disorder is recognizing its presence. Even if you yourself are not suffering from one, you should pay attention to the following warning signs in colleagues:

  • Dramatic fluctuations in weight
  • Commenting that they are too fat, too thin, or out of shape
  • Preoccupation with diet
  • Outright refusal to eat certain foods
  • Avoiding meals or avoiding eating in front of others
  • Mood swings, exhaustion, or irritation
  • Obsessive use of gum, mints, or mouthwash
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom, particularly after meals

The most important piece of advice I'll give about treating a workplace eating disorder if you aren't suffering from one yourself is to recognize the boundaries of the person suffering from it. How you proceed here depends on your relationship with the person. If you're on friendly terms, you might consider reaching out to them in private and expressing concern for their well-being.

Otherwise, you may want to consider going to HR if you think the problem is particularly serious. Understand, however, that you cannot force someone into treatment. Do not pressure them but instead focus on supporting them.

You can help in other ways, as well. Avoid talking about your own food or weight, don't joke about their eating habits, and avoid commenting on or drawing attention to their physical appearance.

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What if you're the one suffering?

If you're the one suffering and are ready to tackle it, treatment is generally accomplished by determining a disorder's root cause, which should be left to a trained mental health professional. There are several coping skills that can help a patient along the road to recovery:

  • Don't blame yourself. Instead, work on positive self-talk. For each negative or self-critical thought, try to combat it with positivity.
  • Notice and nourish yourself in moments when the eating disorder is inactive. Settle in and appreciate these moments when the disorder has no control over you.
  • Understand that recovery takes time. It's not something that can be achieved overnight, nor is it a road you should try to embark on alone. 
  • Find activities you're passionate about and that you can use to boost your self-esteem. Consider meditation, yoga, or massage therapy. 
  • Know that you are worth the effort and cost. 
  • Seek professional help. Find a therapist trained in eating disorders. Don't be afraid to ask them if they've been specifically trained in eating disorders. 
  • Work with a multidisciplinary team. Eating disorders are best treated with a multidisciplinary treatment team composed of a primary care physician, a psychotherapist, a dietitian, and a psychiatrist. Psychotherapists can often help you assemble one.

An eating disorder can be crippling to both your personal and professional life. In the often high-stress modern workplace, there's no shortage of things that can trigger one. Learning to recognize the signs and understanding how and when to seek treatment can make all the difference in the world. 

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