Food Rituals or Food Preferences: How to Spot the Difference
I will never forget one specific breakfast during my time in residential treatment. An on-staff clinician supervising the meal told me to throw out my pancakes and grab a new batch. When I asked her why, the answer was confusing, but as with most rules at this inpatient facility, it left no room for further questions. "You spread peanut butter on your pancakes—that's a food ritual," she replied.
So I mutely tossed them in the trash, reached for another stack, and ate every single bite (sans peanut butter, of course). That brief incident took place over 10 years ago, but it's still fresh in my mind for one particular reason: I love peanut butter on pancakes and always have. Is this not acceptable in eating disorder recovery? Is it a food preference or a food ritual? Moreover, how do I spot the difference?
The Difference Between Food Preferences and Food Rituals
To spot the difference between a food preference or a food ritual, I think it helps first to understand what these terms mean on their own. A food preference is rather self-explanatory—this describes a natural, genuine inclination toward the flavor and texture of certain foods. Everyone with taste buds has a set of food preferences. However, while food preferences are both normal and universal, food rituals can indicate potential eating disorder behaviors. So what specifically counts as a food ritual?
"Food rituals are compulsive ways in which a person interacts with food that produces anxiety when not followed. For instance, many people who have eating disorders take abnormally small bites of food, and when not allowed to do so, will feel extreme anxiety. Others tear their food apart, and will feel anxiety of not allowed to do so. Many rituals make it less stressful to eat food, or have the purpose of making one full before they finish the meal. Others focus on making the meal taste bad by letting cereal become soggy, letting food become cold, or burning and over-seasoning the food to create a bad taste. The purpose of this is to discourage the desire to eat these particular foods in the future. Other rituals focus on how the food is arranged on the plate and the order or pattern in which food is eaten...Some rituals include meticulous measurement, preparation, or arrangement of food."1
How to Spot Food Preferences and Food Rituals in Recovery
The key word here is compulsive. While food preferences center on enjoyment, food rituals are about maintaining strict, inflexible rules for what or how to eat. There is no room for freedom, experimentation, variety, nourishment, or pleasure in food rituals. These behaviors confine a person to the cycles of fear and obsession, which can ultimately fuel an eating disorder. But do all unusual eating habits fall into the category of rituals? I think this answer is contingent on two factors: the motivation underneath a behavior and the emotions that surface when this behavior is taken away.
To illustrate what I mean, allow me to circle back to the infamous pancake situation. If I used peanut butter to create an unpleasant flavor or texture combination, thus telling my brain to restrict caloric intake, that would be a food ritual. If I felt anxious or uncomfortable in the absence of peanut butter on my pancakes, that would also be a food ritual. But if I enjoy the taste of peanut butter smeared on pancakes, I see no issue with this. I also have zero qualms about calling it a food preference—even if it made no sense to the clinician at my eating disorder treatment center all those years ago.
- What Are Food Rituals? (2019, October 22). Center for Discovery. https://centerfordiscovery.com/blog/what-are-food-rituals/
Schurrer, M. (2022, September 15). Food Rituals or Food Preferences: How to Spot the Difference, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, December 7 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2022/9/food-rituals-or-food-preferences-how-to-spot-the-difference