The Danger of Comparing Your Eating Habits to Someone Else's

Just because someone else eats a certain way doesn't mean YOU have to. (I mean, ew!)

Ever find yourself staring at someone else’s plate and feeling bad about what you’ve chosen to put on your own? Thinking they’re being “good” and you’re being “bad”? Or has someone else’s food issues ever rubbed off on you? That’s exactly what reader Lizzie, 20, is dealing with right now. Her note and my answer below. As always, please feel free to weigh in.

Q: You answered a question of mine a couple of months ago about whether it was possible to lose weight in a healthy way while trying to recover from binge eating and other emotional issues with food.  Well, I’m working on taking your advice and your blog has kind of become a lifeline for me, so I felt like you might be helpful with another problem that I’ve been having.

I recently started work at a summer internship, and it’s kind of stressful.  Fortunately, I don’t work long hours, but from 9-5 it’s pretty go, go, go.  It doesn’t help that I tend to overly invest myself in my work and take criticism too personally.  So it’s in this environment of stress that my relationship with my coworkers is developing.  This might sound weird, but the eating habits of one of my coworkers is serving as a trigger for my own unhealthy habits. One of the other girls that I work with barely eats anything at lunch; occasionally it’s a salad, but it’s usually just a small non-fat Greek yogurt. For some reason, I end up eating almost nothing around my coworkers and then the stress of the job takes hold of me and by the time I get home around 6, I’m starving and stressed out and sometimes I manage to eat a healthy snack before dinner, but sometimes I just get a little crazy and eat a bunch of junk food.  I felt like I was making progress before this, and I don’t want to end up back where I started again.

What can I do to deal with this problem in a healthy and sane way? —Lizzie

A: Hi again, Lizzie! First, let’s just make it clear that a little bit of comparison is normal. I still look at my husband’s plate sometime just to see what portion a normal eater like him has taken. I know in my gut what the right amounts of food are, but because of my years of binge-eating history, sometimes it helps to seek a little outside input or assurance. It’s normal, too, to want to fit in—just on a basic human level—with other people in your environment, or at your table. Why do you think we always ask, “What are you gonna get?” before ordering? Part of it is to help us decide. Well, if they think the chicken will be good, maybe I’ll try that. Or, if they’re having an all-out indulgence, maybe I will too!

I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that, but like many urges and behaviors that “normal” eaters can safely employ, those of us with issues can get overly wrapped up in them and end up being harmed.

There’s a phrase I’ve repeated to myself a lot over the years any time I’m tempted to compare myself to someone else in a way that is making me feel bad or causing me to behave in an unhealthy way (like being resentful or jealous, or in your case, Lizzie, skipping lunch!): “Her body/career/diet/issues/life has NOTHING to do with my own.” This mantra has saved me from all manner of difficulties. Because it’s simple and it’s 100 percent true. What your coworker eats has nothing to do with what is best for YOU to eat.

How late your coworker stays at the office has nothing to do with how late you need to stay. Someone you’re competitive with at work getting kudos has nothing to do with the good job that YOU are also doing. The size of someone else’s jeans has nothing to do with the ones you’re wearing.

You know the deal, Lizzie: No matter how “together,” confident, or perhaps thin?, this coworker is, the action of skipping lunch on purpose, or eating a 100-calorie yogurt as a meal is not healthy, normal, positive behavior. And it’s not something you want to model yourself after. What torture to deprive our bodies of the energy they need! It’s unhealthy, and, as you know, counterproductive in terms of recovery (and even weight loss).

One last thing: Do you have any other ways to manage your stressful times? Do you exercise, journal, meditate, go for daily walks, have quiet time or something else? I’ve found that using stress-managing tools of some sort several days a week is keyfor keeping me sane in daily life—and especially when things get stressful.

Ladies: Have you ever felt influenced by someone else’s food issues? What did you do? xo…Sunny

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11 Responses to The Danger of Comparing Your Eating Habits to Someone Else's

  1. Nadia says:

    Lizzie I totally relate to what you are going through, you are not alone and I want to tell you about two experiences that I went through.

    My eating problems started after a break up with a boyfriend, I completely broke down and lost at least 10 kilos. When I started getting over it I started putting on weight and I couldn’t stop binge eating. Getting on the scales each morning was a horrific experience, the weight just kept on going up and I couldn’t stop eating.

    One of my closest girl friends at the time was a beautiful girl, she was strong minded and confident, she helped me get through the break up. Somewhere along the line she told me that she occassionally made herself sick if she had eaten too much. She was talking about it like it was the most normal thing and I was in shock, I told her that she had a problem and that she was in denial and she refused to listen to me. We eventually never spoke about it and pretended nothing happened.

    A couple of months later I was out with my extended family, even though I had put on weight, I was still slimmer than the last time that they saw me and they complimented me all night. I tried to nibble at pieces of chicken but I couldn’t stop myself and stuffed myself, I ran to the bathroom and made myself sick. This was three years ago and two years ago I told my current boyfriend about my eating disorder. Up until about 6 months ago I was regularly purging. I used my friends excuses and distorted all logic to start harming myself. It was awful and I still have problems with binge eating and purge myself maybe once a month when I lose control.

    About 6 weeks ago, I had an awful fight with my mother and thereafter started eating uncontrollably. This was not helped by the fact that I have a new colleague that is super skinny but constantly eating. I don’t know what it was but it rubbed off on me, when she started working here I was convinced and still think that she has her own eating problems (constantly going to the bathroom after eating, watering eyes after coming back from the backing, exercising for 3 hrs a day).

    She always offered me food and I never said no, part of me felt like she was trying to sabotage me but even if this were true I shouldn’t have let it affect me. It is a very strange thing, sitting next to this girl but I need to find a way to deal with it. I’ve come back from holiday and made a really conscious effort to not look at what she is eating and not to accept any food unless I am genuinely hungry. So far it is working.

    I’ve told my boyfriend about this girl but normal eaters just don’t get it.

    I think that the girl who is sitting next to you at work has her own issues, it’s not normal not to eat, as humans we need to feed ourselves. There is another girl who I work with and she is clearly a normal eater, I’m hanging out with her a lot more maybe you can do the same? I don’t think it’s good to have people around you who aren’t helping and who are having a negative effect you. Try hard to turn a blind eye.

    • Sunny says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Nadia. I think you’re right that seeking out people who are more healthy about food and their bodies can be a good thing. Negative energy can be destructive! xo…Sunny

  2. Angie says:

    Thank you for this posting and for the comments. I have a very good friend who I get along with on so many levels. Many people often comment that we look a lot alike which is ironic because we’re such good friends. That said, I’ve never discussed my disordered eating with her. I notice (some days more than others) that she eats a lot of food, but does not seem to exercise. On the one hand, she is such a good friend that I don’t want my food issues to become the ‘third person’ in our relationship. I really find it refreshing to have a good friend that does not care to talk about food or exercise. We just talk about living our lives - kids, husbands, work, books, homes, etc. Anyway… I do worry that my disordered eating might cause me to pull back / act differently, but I try to put the eating issues on the proverbial shelf and not think about them when we are together. My husband reminds me that everyone has some issue with food and it’s OK not to discuss it and be friends who don’t talk about food and exercise.

    Another random thought - Within the past day I heard of a neighbor moving to a new (bigger, more expensive) home. I immediately started to compare/berate myself. I know this is not healthy and I should not do it. I am struggling with thoughts and it’s really wearing me down. I haven’t been productive today because my thoughts are waging this internal battle. Thanks so much for letting me comment. The act of writing about comparing myself to others has helped me see what I need to do to get back on track. I have to acknowledge what’s going on so I can move forward. All the best - A

  3. Heather says:

    How do people deal with this issue when it’s with people closer to them, whose lives are often a lot to do with them? For example, sometimes I find myself mirroring myboyfriend’s food intake or eating something because he is, as opposed to me wanting anything to eat.

    • Nadia says:

      Heather, I have this same problem as I live with my boyfriend. He’s a normal eater and eats a lot of my trigger foods. I’ve told him that it is a problem for me and I ask him to watch out for me. Last night he had a burger and chips, I had already eaten earlier but chips are binge foods for me and I couldn’t stop thinking about them whilst they were in the oven. I told him that it was hard for me and he asked me whether I was really hungry. If I was I could have as much as I wanted. Obviously I wasn’t hungry and having him say that got the logic working! He has also stopped buying trigger foods such as biscuits to store in the cupboard. It doesn’t always work, sometimes I do exactly what he does and it’s crazy isn’t it? Why should someone else’s eating affect you, I think I use it as an excuse to binge. I’d love to hear any other ideas…

  4. LG says:

    I don’t seem to have a hard time being influenced by my husband’s or friends’ eating habits, which I’m very thankful for. Maybe this comes with a different stage of recovery? (Or because part of the reason I had an eating disorder in the first place was to have something to control when it felt like my parents were controlling everything…?)

    Having said this, the “food trait” I dislike the most about some people is when they push food on me. “Here, I just made these! You MUST have some!” or “it’s so and so’s birthday today at work today - have some cake!” or “Let’s go for icecream instead of out for coffee - it’s buy 1 gallon, get one free!” etc. It’s funny…when I succomb to these offers when I don’t want to, I sometimes end up overeating later that day out of anger that someone “made” me eat something and blow my “plan”…or I have to have an intentional talk/calming session with myself so that I don’t overeat.

    I have developed coping strategies around this too…I can actually just say “NO” to food and the world won’t collapse! And if someone is angry that I didn’t accept what they offered, then that’s their problem. Often I just THINK they will be upset about it, but they really don’t care either way. And if someone pushes food on me at the office, I sometimes kindly accept it and then throw it away in a garbage (not near my desk so I’m not thinking about it).

    • JP says:

      This is something I find frustrating as well. I try to exhibit some control and I say no thank you, and I’m met with “just one bite, come on, it’s great!” or whatever. I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like explaining to you how one bite is not ever really just one bite.
      I usually try to joke it off by saying “No thanks, more for you!”

  5. C says:

    Oh I definitely have problems with this…I only eat ridiculously healthily when with my boyfriend, for some reason I need to maintain this image of health and conscientiousness when eating in his company…consequently, he thinks I eat like a bird and can’t understand why I’d ever complain about my weight etc when I’m such a careful eater. Sometimes I look forward to him leaving so I can sit down and inhale a pint of Haagen Daz…

  6. Heather says:

    I think part of eating like people around us and/or eating in a particular way around others, like C’s post, is probably trying to be ‘normal’ and project an image of ‘normalcy’.

    Perhaps it is more sensible to follow a similar tact as NG and just say no.

    My boyfriend tries to ask me if I’m really hungry sometimes, and I tend to check in with him when I think I want sweets/junk etc. It’s sometimes frustrating as I want to do what I want, but then it helps me think a little more about it, so we’ll see how it goes.

  7. Mindy says:

    I believe it’s important to remember that everyone has different eating habits and that we all cope with life differently. This is the basic premise of the article and it is sound advice. We simply need to stop, breathe, and remember that another girl’s eating habits are her own issues. It has nothing to do with who we are.

    I don’t internalize what is on somebody else’s plate…nor do I compare my food portions with theirs.

    However, I do know what it feels like when another person is critical of what I eat and how much I eat.

    When I was younger and thinner, I went out to lunch with my mother and a friend of hers. This woman assumed that all I would eat was carrot sticks…a very ignorant assumption based on the fact that I was thin.

    Now that I’m not as tiny as I used to be, I hear a lot of cracks about my weight. Some people also believe that I spend my time stuffing junk food down my throat. This is hurtful and inaccurate.

    Then, at other times, I’m like: who cares? Anyone who is picking on you for what you do or don’t eat, or the portions, obviously has nothing better to do. They also have their own issues with food and their own insecurities.

    Comparisons are never healthy if they are based on superficial things. I’m starting to see that.

  8. Mindy says:

    BTW…a lot of women struggle with body image, food, eating disorders, etc.

    We’re not alone. Some people might look like they have a better life but you never know until you walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. :)

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Sunny Sea Gold

About the Author

Sunny Sea Gold is a media-savvy advocate and commentator specializing in binge eating disorder, cultural obsessions around food and weight, and raising children who have a healthy body image.