Navigating the workplace with an eating disorder

·7 min read
illustration of a cityscape with an apple, water, containers and a teapot around it
illustration of a cityscape with an apple, water, containers and a teapot around it

The first few days of any job are a blur of paperwork and first impressions, and between setting up a new desk, meeting an office full of colleagues and learning the responsibilities of a new job, the details can slip from memory.

I can, however, remember what I brought for lunch on my first day at my first job out of college at 22, as an assistant at a nonprofit in New York City: a tiny, undressed salad, woefully lacking in both nutrients and flavor, in a white-and-blue Tupperware from home. My team ended up taking me out for lunch on that first day, so I saved my sad salad in the fridge and ate it alone in the kitchen the following day. It became the first of many sad salads that I’d eat, not just at that workplace but those to come. The workday was unpredictable, but I could control my lunch.

When I entered the workforce, I was in the throes of an eating disorder. I chronically under-ate and over-exercised, convinced that my habits were healthy; it took years before I recognized what was happening and sought treatment. So in the early days of my career, I juggled the expectations of office culture and work life alongside a disease that controlled virtually my every move.

Nearly 30 million Americans will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime. Eating disorders affect folks of all different genders, races, demographics and body types, and recovery looks different for everyone. But for those who are navigating the nuances of professional life while also facing an eating disorder, it can be challenging to know how to balance the two.

“If the individual is in treatment of any kind, they would have to balance the logistics of meeting with their therapist, dietitian, doctor, making sure all of their appointments are taken care of, on top of working,” says Nicole Bentley, staff therapist at Cityscape Counseling in Chicago. “That can be quite a stressor.”

Office spaces — virtual or physical — can be hotbeds for the type of diet talk and body comparison that’s extremely triggering for people with eating disorders.

“A lot of times when we don’t know people and we’re not super connected to them, food is a common experience,” says Karlee Pinto, a licensed registered dietitian based in Chicago. “We’re all trying to make small talk, and that can become a recipe to start talking about diet talk.”

Diet culture is deeply ingrained in everything we do, and we have to take care of ourselves if we’re going to dismantle it. 

And speaking of food culture, a physical workplace can present lots of unpredictability when it comes to eating. From spontaneous lunches with coworkers to office happy hours to celebrating a birthday with cake, it can be easy to fixate on food and difficult to stick to a recovery plan.

Work is also where many of us also start to develop our identity as professional adults, and it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed. In these situations, it’s easy to look to food as something we can control when everything else feels unpredictable. Hence my sad salads.

“As you’re trying to find your identity within your work, especially at your first or second job, I think it takes a bit to find your grounding,” says Pinto. “That can throw off food and body image, as with any transition.”

If you find yourself in this situation, how can you best take care of yourself? Bentley and Pinto agree this depends on where you are in your recovery.

Find an ally

Some people may find it helpful to inform a trusted boss or colleague about their situation, says Bentley. Though it’s not required by any means, having an ally in the workplace may help you feel more supported, especially if you’re following a strict recovery plan.

“Whatever [recovery plan] someone has established with their therapist or dietitian, it’s important to prioritize that and anchor that throughout the day,” says Bentley. “It would be a great option to have someone in the workplace be aware of what you’re going through and what your needs are.”

Prioritize lunch

Also important is advocating for a designated lunch break, something that can easily fall by the wayside in modern work life. When I was first navigating my eating disorder, it took a concerted effort to make sure I was feeding myself every day. In our modern “hustle culture,” skipping meals because you’re too busy lends bragging rights and office cred — but it can be a big challenge to a recovery plan.

How can you ensure you get time to eat at work? If you aren’t comfortable disclosing your eating disorder to your supervisor or workplace, Pinto recommends centering your request on your work performance.

“Sometimes I like to fall back on, ‘It’s important for me to have a lunch break because if I can feel [good in] my body, I can best show up for work,’” says Pinto. “Channeling it toward the company might result in a more pleasant answer: ‘If you give me this time, I will give you better attentiveness, better mood, all of those things.’”

Check in with yourself

If you’re not quite at the stage where you have a recovery plan, Bentley also recommends doing some individual reflection to find out where your stressors lie. Practices like mindfulness and self-awareness can help you to identify where you need support and avoid situations that could potentially be triggering.

“Do a little bit of research, some journaling or exploratory work to figure out, ‘What am I thinking about? Am I thinking about food I don't allow myself to have? What if I practice allowing myself to have those foods?’” says Bentley. “Trial and error can be really helpful, but it stems from the original awareness of what’s going on.”

Rely on professionals

Of course, seeking professional help is crucial. Resources like Psychology Today or a referral from your primary care physician can help you find a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. And though they are no substitute for professional support, recovery-oriented books, podcasts or social media groups, such as body-positive Instagram accounts, can also provide a sense of community.

Be your own advocate

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that it takes real energy to advocate for yourself at work or anywhere else. If you find yourself in a situation with coworkers who are preoccupied with diet talk, you are not responsible for changing their minds or shifting their views. Opting out of a potentially harmful interaction without explaining yourself — for example, finding a reason to exit a body-centric conversation — is always an option.

“[It can feel like] you have to defend what you’re doing or stand up to diet culture or be an advocate every time,” she says. “We don’t have the energy to do that every time we’re exposed to diet culture or disordered thoughts. You don’t have to defend why you eat this way or give them a presentation or elevator speech on why that’s not helpful.”

I felt this way dozens of times while navigating my eating disorder: figuring out what to say to my coworkers, wondering how to explain my insistence on a lunch break, desperately hoping nobody would comment on what I was eating. It’s taken me a long time to learn that I don’t have to change everyone’s minds but focus, first and foremost, on caring for myself. The hope, Pinto says, is for our tools and strategies to be sustainable in the long run.

“We’re always going to be swimming against this diet culture,” Pinto says. Our individual focus should be to “build resiliency.”

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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