Inclusion, eating disorders and commensality

The practice of eating together – also known as commensality – is a conventional way to build community and show hospitality to others. Christian communities often eat together socially (in group meals) and symbolically (at the Eucharist). A recent resource from the Evangelical Alliance called Simply Eat (2018) demonstrates the significance of commensality in churches. It exhorts readers to show love and hospitality to others, to celebrate faith and foster friendship, over shared meals. But can everyone ‘simply eat’? What about the ways in which commensality can exclude people?

Simply Eat?

              The prevalence of eating disorders has been increasing across the UK – and worldwide – over recent decades. It is estimated that between 1.25 million and 3.4 people in the UK have an eating disorder – and these figures are thought to be underestimated. The most common eating disorder is OSFED (47%), followed by binge eating disorder (22%), bulimia (19%), anorexia (8%) and ARFID (5%). There is also the reality of disordered eating, which can include symptoms and behaviours of eating disorders but may not warrant an ED diagnosis. The pandemic has only increased risk factors for eating disorders and mental ill-health, bringing with it social isolation, loss of routine, uncertainty, anxiety, and disconnection. It is, unfortunately, no surprise that the number of referrals to NHS child and adolescent eating disorder services almost doubled in the past year.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses; the various eating behaviours are used as a coping mechanism for negative emotions and specific stressors. It is therefore not completely about the food itself – but it’s important to remember that the underlying psychological distress can often centre around bodies, food and eating, and specific eating behaviours may be stressors themselves. The behavioural aspects of eating disorders, and the underlying distress, may therefore be exacerbated in situations organised around food. Many people with eating disorders may also avoid social situations in which food will be involved. This is something for churches to bear in mind as we increase in-person activities again, and reinstate common practices like eating meals together.

Inclusive commensality  

              This does not mean we need to completely remove eating together from our habits, but rather take into account the realities of disordered eating, and ensure that commensality is conducted in a way that is sensitive and inclusive. One way to ensure inclusive commensality is to decentralise food. In Christian contexts, eating together is often very significant, but it is a means to an end: it enables community, deepens relationships, and facilitates mission and welcome. So we can decentralise food in favour of the social connection that commensality creates.

There are steps you can take to decentralise food at meal times as well as to make meals as comfortable as possible for potential eating disorder sufferers. For example, avoid discussing weight, shape and diets, as well as terms such as ‘fat’ and ‘greedy’. This is particularly true at the moment, as a tendency to discuss lockdown weight gain/loss has emerged. It is also best to avoid language around control, such as saying to someone “I wish I had your control around food”. Similarly, don’t make comments about physical appearance indicating someone looks ‘healthier’ or ‘better’ – I know people who have been told they look better a certain way, when they were in fact suffering with an eating disorder. This is particularly important because, as noted above, there is a variety of eating disorders and you often can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them.

Practically, you can ensure that everything for the meal is planned in advance. The eating disorder charity BEAT recommend this in order to avoid any last-minute changes that could increase anxiety. They suggest planning ahead what food you will eat, what time, who will be there, and being considerate of portion sizes. It’s good also to be understanding when people may need space around mealtimes, for example if they experience physical symptoms such as stomach pain (this is also true for other people e.g. IBS sufferers); you could make sure toilets are discreetly accessible. Finally, ensure that you have a diverse array of social events which don’t always revolve around food or exercise.

Eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of age, but they are most prominent in teenagers and young adults, so these measures would be especially useful in church youth and student group settings. None of these steps require someone to disclose an eating disorder to you, it simply means that they are more likely to feel welcome and your events will be more inclusive! It’s important that church communities don’t create triggers, but instead provide a safe, compassionate space in which difficult feelings and experiences can be acknowledged and understood, where people can feel included and loved.

Chrissie Thwaites is an Inclusive Church supporter and PhD Student in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds.