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Grocery shopping with ED

Grocery Shopping With An Eating Disorder

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What Challenges Does Someone Face When Grocery Shopping With An Eating Disorder?

Grocery shopping with an eating disorder can often be a very scary task.

If possible, it is best to have someone else grocery shop until someone with an eating disorder is far into their recovery journey.

Grocery shopping presents unique challenges to someone with an eating disorder including:

  • Lots of social interaction surrounding food and food choices
  • Abundant stimuli associated with food including noise, lights, bright colors, and loudspeaker advertisements
  • Diet culture language on displays
  • Easy access to calories and nutrient facts on advertisements and labels
  • A surplus of choices for every food item and can trigger the eating disorder
  • Price points that may trigger an ED to rationalize disordered behavior
  • Marketing gimmicks that place foods with claims to health in more prominent view

Preparing Yourself For The Grocery Store Trip With ED

Sometimes the first steps in being successful in the grocery store take place before we even step in the door.

You might try simply circling the parking lot in your car or walking to the door a few times if anxiety is very high at the grocery store.

Once you get into the grocery store you might also try walking around the store simply holding a cart without the intention of truly grocery shopping.

You may try choosing a store that contains household goods and clothing as you begin this journey to grocery shopping with an ED.

You may try simply perusing the non-food sections of the store and making purchases a few times before navigating to the grocery aisles.

Questions To Ask Yourself Before Shopping With An Eating Disorder

If we are to be successful in reducing our anxiety at the grocery store with an eating disorder, we need to get honest with ourselves about where our triggers may lie.

Your eating disorder likely may try to convince you that grocery shopping is just “not that big of a deal” in order to serve its own behaviors when you get there! Be cautious of this. Here are some questions to ask yourself  to help you get honest about where your fears of the grocery store might be.

  • What grocery store aisles give you anxiety?
  • What are some of my main triggers?  This might include socializing with others in the store, calorie counting,  or exploring certain food groups.
  • Is there a map of the grocery store somewhere or can I create one?
  • Which local grocery store helps me to feel more calm. Which has the best lighting/arrangement?
  • Are there other variables that might be triggers in the grocery store (for example cocktail lounges, coffee shops, cafes)?
  • Does the grocery store cater to food types that will serve my eating disorder? For example: Does it provide mostly organic foods or other diet culture trends?

How Can A Support Person Help In Shopping with ED

A shopping buddy can serve as your accountability partner. Your accountability partner can be a romantic partner, family member or a member of your healthcare team.

Tell your shopping buddy your goals for the shopping trip. This might include time limits, not reading labels, or the route which you choose to shop. The shopping buddy can help you to adhere to your goals. You might also ask your shopping buddy to hold you accountable for choosing fear foods.

A support person in shopping with an eating disorder is a great way to have a distraction as you navigate this challenging task.

How Can I Reduce Anxiety In Shopping With An Eating Disorder?

There are many things that might be helpful in turning down the eating disorder noise when at the grocery store.  A few tricks include:

  • Shop with headphones. Listen to music or a podcast. This can provide a distraction at the grocery store.
  • Set a time limit. This can prevent obsessing over certain food choices or spending too much time looking at labels.
  • Shop with a list.
  • Eat a snack before you head out or even in the car.
  • Shop in the evening or at a time where the grocery store will not be as busy.
  • Use self checkout to avoid awkward conversations about food.

Tips For When and Where To Shop With An Eating Disorder

  • Try choosing foods from the prepared foods section.
  • Pretend you’re at a potluck where no nutrition information is provided. Choose the food in a similar way.
  • Choose foods from the bulk foods section where it’s often more difficult to access nutrition information.
  • Try simply using instacart or shopping online!  This can prevent a lot of anxiety in the grocery store. It’s also a great way to introduce someone to grocery shopping in recovery.

Add But Never Take Away Approach In Shopping With An ED

Your ED voice is likely VERY LOUD as you walk through the grocery store aisles. There may be strong urges to consider and reconsider every decision when shopping with an eating disorder.

Resist this urge.  When you choose something to put into your cart, don’t allow your eating disorder to negotiate it! This also goes for the items on your grocery list.  When we put items on the grocery list we commit to purchasing those items.

Practice allowing adding anything to the cart that seems desirable.  However, never remove things from the cart once they have made their landing. This is often the eating disorder trying to negotiate.

How Is Experiential Therapy Used in Helping Someone With An Eating Disorder Grocery Shop?

Experiential therapy used to support you while grocery shopping will be facilitated by a member of your treatment team.

Practitioners will accompany you on your grocery store trip either independently, or with a group of individuals struggling with eating disorders.

You should expect that experiential therapy will begin in your practitioners office. You will map out likes and dislikes, fear foods, what you hope to achieve out of your grocery store trip, and where you anticipate the greatest struggle.

You may also work with your provider to create your shopping list and map out where these  shopping list items might be at the grocery store.

What to expect if using experiential therapy at the grocery store:

  • Your support person is able to observe your reaction to various food choices or grocery store sections.
  • The clinician can help identify triggers in the grocery store that can be worked through in session or in future grocery store trips
  • You practitioner will be able to see how you navigate the grocery store, and if any of your habits are driven by the eating disorder
  • The practitioner will help you explore what gives you anxiety and why as you walk through the grocery store
  • You will create a safe place with your practitioner. This might be the produce section or a section with no food items such as if the grocery store sells furniture as well.  If anxiety gets too high, you will go to this spot.
  •  When triggering areas of the grocery store are identified, you may work up to visiting this section with your provider instead of jumping in on the first grocery store visit.

Use A virtual support buddy for grocery shopping with ED if an in person one isn’t available

If you are not able to get an in person support buddy, try using Face Time, Zoom, or Telehealth to bring a support person on your journey through the grocery store.

A practitioner, such as a haes dietitian, can offer virtual to help you identify diet culture language, and provide emotional support in difficult sections of the grocery store. Your dietitian is a great person to bring along for your grocery trip because they can also gently guide to ensure you are getting meals and snacks that will support your eating disorder recovery meal plan.

Plug in your headphones and walk with your support buddy through the grocery store, communicating with them as often as needed.

What Are Some Way’s You’ve Worked Through Shopping With An Eating Disorder?

I know that when I was experiencing an eating disorder, grocery shopping became a very daunting task!I would obsess over finding the perfect label that matched my disordered thoughts about calories per servings and allowed ingredients.

I would also heavily buy into diet culture messaging slapped onto labels such as gluten free, organic, or low sugar. A few things I have found very helpful for ditching diet culture rules around grocery shopping include

  • Starting in the middle aisles, then working my way to the perimeter
  • Putting blinders on when it comes to labels
  • Drafting a grocery list throughout the week.  Breaking up my grocery list based on where it might be found in the store.

Is there anything that has helped you be successful in navigating the grocery store with an eating disorder?

Drop you suggestions in the comments below to help others!

Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!