The dangers of making food comparisons during recovery

Catherine Liberty's picture

Have you ever found yourself obsessing over what other people are eating or constantly comparing your food intake to others?

Perhaps you’ve witnessed friends skipping meals and felt the urge to also restrict your food intake? Or maybe you’ve attended a work event where everyone else “overindulged” at lunch, causing you to want to follow suit?

Research shows that you're more likely to be influenced by the food choices of others when you have low self-esteem, and let’s face it, bulimia nervosa comes hand in hand with low-self-esteem, so there is no real surprise here. 

“Why should I have to eat this when they don’t have to?”

When I first started recovery I would always find myself asking questions like,  “Why do I have to eat breakfast when they don’t have to?” or “Why am I expected to eat 3 meals AND 3 snacks every day when most of the people I know don’t even eat half that amount of food?

Before I knew it my inner dialogue started to resemble that of a small (and highly irritating) child. I‘m pretty sure the words “it’s not fair” also featured few hundred times a day back then too. 

But comparing your food intake to others can spell disaster for recovery

There is a great little recovery tip that advises you to look to see how “normal people” eat, in order to get a better understanding of things like food portions and serving sizes, and in theory I think this is a brilliant idea. In fact I’ve passed on this little piece of advice many times before.

But finding those “normal people” is a challenge in itself because we live in a diet obsessed world, where people have really lost touch with what it means to be healthy.

Many of the people around us may not have eating disorders but that doesn’t mean they’re not demonstrating patterns of disordered eating. 

So by comparing your eating habits to those around you, you can start to convince yourself that it’s okay to skip lunch, or that no one really eats breakfast anyway – and it is this kind of distorted logic that endangers recovery. 

What the other people around you are eating has nothing to do with what is best for you to eat, especially while you’re recovering from bulimia!

Ready to stop comparing your food intake?

Again I find myself wishing I could share some kind of magic button – “press this button once and you’ll no longer feel the urge to compare your eating habits with others” the instructions would read. 

Unfortunately as Bulimia Help taught me very early on, there are no quick fixes in recovery, but these suggestions could help:

1. Give yourself a big reality check and remember that it really doesn’t matter what anyone else is eating, it only matters what you are eating. These people are not in recovery but you are, you need to respect that regular eating is essential to your future happiness.  

2. Learn to let go of jealousy and when you are feeling envious of people who engage in unhealthy eating patterns try to remind yourself of how truly awful it used to feel when you would restrict your food, or when you would binge eat. You may even start to feel sorry for the people you once envied (I know I did!)

3. Increase awareness of your own behaviours by working out your food comparison triggers. Are you more likely to compare your food when you’re around certain people or in specific situations? 

4. Continue to build your self-worth by learning how to appreciate yourself and utilize positive affirmations to help boost your confidence in your own choices.  

5. Prepare to be Persistent because change takes time, but it is always worth the fight. 



Pauline's picture
It's so helpful to know this

It's so helpful to know this is normal to do so in recovery. Recently I thought I was eating too much with my S/E plan so I started to reduce the quantities. And the other day I accompanied by boyfriend to buy his lunch and I was so envious because he could chose so many delicious things. I wanted to eat everything I saw.
No need to say that I was a bit lost with what's good or not for me at the moment.
Now I ll be convinced that the right thing is to stuck to your S/E plan and stop thinking I am eating too much just because I feel bloated or fat!

Let's keep the good work ;)


ardnassac79's picture
As always, another spot on

As always, another spot on article. Even when I was in the tight grip of the ED, I have always compared my food to others - especially in social settings - except it was the other way around - I would think to myself, haha I can eat as much as I want and it won't matter in a few minutes when I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. But the constant obsession with food, the paranoia of being discovered, all kept me so wrapped up in stress! Overcoming the food obsession - both with what I'm eating and comparing it to what everyone else does - is such a big step. I agree, I need to stop looking at other's food habits and thinking they are "right or wrong" and just focus on me and what does and doesn't help me get that much closer to true recovery and a healthy relationship with food.

Janicke's picture
this is realy helpful, i

this is realy helpful, i always compare myself to my mum, who doesnt eat ANY brekfast and lunch its sometimes just fruit :( makes me feel guily eating but i know this unhealthy comparison isnt helping recovery at all, my mum doesnt have an eating disorder but i do, so i need to stop this, isnt helping at all, xxxx


jlh's picture
I have a question, I find it

I have a question,

I find it hard to watch people eat without wanting to eat myself. Then if I don't actually need to eat and then over eat or feel like I shouldn't have it all goes down hill. What can I do about my food jealousy?

Catherine Liberty
Catherine Liberty's picture
Hi Pauline - I'm really glad

Hi Pauline - I'm really glad that reading this article helped you to make the decision to stick to your structured eating plan, even during the times that it makes you feel uncomfortable or bloated. I know it can be a big struggle until you've really adapted to regular eating, but it really is the best approach to take.

Hi ardnassac79 - I completely agree, overcoming that food obsession is a huge step and something that requires a lot of hard work and perseverance. I know for a time in recovery it feels like your food obsessions are actually becoming stronger, especially so when you find yourself needing to spend so much time focusing on planning your meals in advance. But learning how to become mindful in regards to your food comparisons with others is a brilliant place to start. I used to tell myself over and over "it doesn't matter what they are doing", of course I'd still be triggered at times, but that constant reminder would help me to remain grounded.

Hi Janicke - Yes it's definitely a struggle when you're living with someone who restricts their food in those ways, but I love how you've turned this around and reminded yourself that you are the one recovering right now. It's so important to keep doing this, no matter what those nasty ED Thoughts try to tell you, let that recovery logic shine through.

Hi jlh - Oh yes I've definitely been there! I'd always find myself around people who were eating when it wasn't "time" for me to eat, and I know that can make you feel just horrible.
It can definitely help to try to coordinate your food times as much as possible, so eating at the same time as family members, eating lunch with colleagues, eating a planned snack when you're out with friends. But of course that won't always be effective.

Depending on the situation, immediately removing yourself from that environment can help, so taking a few minutes away, stepping out of the room, making a phone call, visiting the bathroom etc. just to give yourself enough distance to re-group, to remind yourself of the reasons why you're not eating just now. If you're lucky they may have even finished eating by the time you return!

Sometimes I would find myself having real food envy around my friends, so if offered food outside of my meal plan I would often accept, but save it for later. Then replacing whatever snack I would have eaten later in the day for that food.

Another great idea is to start using the mental rehearsal tool to start visualizing yourself remaining calm and happy during those situations where you're around others who are eating. I really can't say enough about this tool, I think so highly of it, and I know I talk about it a lot so you'll have to excuse me for that, but it really is brilliant.

Here's the link to it:

Finally, I used to find that it really helped to remind myself when my next meal or snack was due. Say if I was around friends who were eating not long after I had finished a meal, I knew it could hurt my recovery to eat with them, so instead I would remind myself that in X amount of time I could eat again. Even if focusing on food in that way makes you feel a little obsessive it's really okay, because establishing that regular and "normal" eating pattern really needs to be the top priority.

I also have a couple of articles that might help you to think up some useful strategies for dealing with food jealousy, or coping when you're around people who are eating, or offering you food outside of your structured eating plan.


I hope this helps a little!

Take care,
Catherine x x

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