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Dear Lesley: Why is It So Difficult to Eat in Public?

Lesley Williams, MD, CEDS

Dr. Lesley Williams is a certified eating disorder specialist, family medicine physician, and positive body image advocate. She co-owns Liberation Center, an eating disorder treatment facility, in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Williams is dedicated to ensuring that all women and men who struggle with eating and body image issues receive the help that they need to overcome and live happy, healthy lives.

Dr. Williams regularly educates other healthcare professionals about the diversity and dangers of eating disorders. She has made several media appearances as an eating disorder expert and regularly speaks at national conferences. Her most recent body image advocacy project is writing the children’s book, Free to Be Me. It encourages young girls and boys to love their bodies, no matter what size, and is scheduled to be released later this year.

Why is it so difficult to eat in public?

Just eating a meal or snack is a challenging experience when you have an eating disorder. It takes a great deal of mental energy to quiet the constant eating disorder voices that are saying things like, “You shouldn’t eat that,” “That has too many calories,” etc. Eating in public can be especially difficult. Those eating disorder voices get even louder when you add worries regarding about how others are perceiving you. Concerns about what others are thinking can fuel anxiety and make it very difficult to eat. My patients who struggle with eating in front of others describe physical symptoms of anxiety such as a fast heart rate, sweaty palms, a sensation of a lump in their throat, nausea, and stomach pain. Who can eat when you feel like that? If eating is already a struggle for you, doing it in public when you are feeling anxious is nearly impossible. 

Many of these meal-related anxiety symptoms have been described by those who struggle with every type of eating disorder. Those that binge eat as well as those that have higher weight bodies describe feeling anxious and embarrassed when they eat in public. They feel as though they are constantly being judged negatively by what and how much is on their plate. Those that struggle with restriction or have lower weight bodies describe feeling anxious because their plates are also constantly being critiqued. They feel that others are watching their intake and constantly pushing them to eat more. This meal-related anxiety can result in increased restriction and binge behaviors in an effort to relieve anxiety symptoms and avoid eating in front of the watchful eyes of others.  

Having a difficult time eating in front of others can also be a warning sign of developing an eating disorder in the future. School cafeterias in particular can be a place where eating disorder behaviors get their start. Many students state that they feel like everyone in the cafeteria is inspecting each other’s plates. Making a decision regarding what to eat for lunch has more to do with what the person next to you is eating rather than what you like or what your body needs. This competition to see who can eat the least is dangerous. Even those who don’t typically struggle with eating issues feel compelled to follow what their peers are doing in that setting. This can lead to eating disordered behaviors later on.

In summary, eating in public is difficult because it increases anxiety and fears regarding what to eat and how your eating habits are being perceived by others. If you or someone you know has difficulty eating in public, take the quiz below to see if you should seek help.

EAT (Eating Attitudes and Timidity) Quiz:

Select the number that best describes you. 

A. How often do you experience feelings of being watched in public while eating?

1. once a month or less

2. nearly every other day

3. constantly, several times a day

 

B. Compared with your peers, how concerned are you about eating in public?

1. Much less timid

2. About as timid

3. Much more timid

 

C. “Eating in public makes me feel symptoms such as a racing heart and sweaty palms.”

1. Not like me

2. Somewhat like me

3. A lot like me

 

D. “Eating in public makes me think that others are evaluating me negatively.”

1. Not like me

2. Somewhat like me

3. A lot like me

 

E. “A concern with eating in public keeps me from behaving appropriately in social settings. For example, introducing myself or making conversation.”

1. Not like me

2. Somewhat like me

3. A lot like me

 

F: “A concern with eating in public appears when I’m in the presence of someone to whom I am attracted.” 

1. Not like me

2. Somewhat like me

3. A lot like me

 

G: “A concern with eating in public appears when I’m around a group of people I want to impress or accept me (i.e. peers at school, people at a party).”

1. Not like me

2. Somewhat like me

3. A lot like me

 

Add up the numbers that correspond with your answers. If your score is above a 12, you may want to reach out to your doctor or therapist to speak with them more regarding your anxiety about eating in public.

Note: This quiz is not a substitute for medical advice and is not endorsed by the National Eating Disorders Association. For recovery resources and treatment options, call the NEDA Helpline at 800-931-2237.