So you went out to dinner with your partner and you can’t help but stare between their plate and yours. Do you eat more than them? “Too much?” Are they judging you for choosing an option with more calories? If you’ve been through this, you’re not alone, and having some tips for easing the discomfort of eating more than the person you’re dining with can help you in the moment.
Thanks to food culture, societal gender expectations, etc., many people find it hard to compare and feel uncomfortable about food. As someone who’s been through this, I personally found some of Rini Frey’s Instagram posts encouraging, where she reminds people that it’s okay to eat the same meal as your partner, more than your partner, and what you want. (In short, it’s not as heavy as it sounds.)
However, this situation can still cause anxiety, which is completely understandable. And here’s another disappointment: even if you allow yourself to eat as much as you want, you can still face a mental restriction, which can harm your relationship with food. So how can you win? Below, experts explain what is normal and why you feel unwell, as well as what can help you worry less about food so you can enjoy the experience of eating more.
Why eating more can make you feel bad
You may be reluctant (or uncomfortable) to eat more than your partner for a variety of reasons, one of which includes a history of similar feelings. “People who have body image issues, disordered/unhealthy eating habits, and/or have clinically diagnosed eating disorders often find themselves comparing their own body shape and weight to others,” says Stephanie Carlyle, a licensed clinical professional counselor at Thriveworks in Baltimore, Maryland, who specializes in eating disorders, women’s issues, relationships and stress. “Furthermore, it is not uncommon for these individuals to compare what they are eating to what others are eating.”
If you haven’t attended to this, another factor could be at play: societal expectations and stereotypes. “It also exists outside of the gender binary: being short is associated with femininity and being tall is associated with masculinity,” says Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, a Raleigh-based dietician who specializes in eating disorders. “Because we associate food intake so closely with body size – even though body size is so much more than what you eat and how much you eat – women and women are expected to need less food than their male partners.”
This kind of indoctrination starts early. Carlyle says it might be more secret, like your dad getting a bigger portion than your mom at dinner. Or, it could be more direct, like someone asking a girl if she’s “gonna eat all that” while praising a boy for eating a lot because “it’ll make him big and strong.”
It is also important to note that women who date women are not immune to this either. “Unfortunately, women are often taught from childhood that eating less is what women ‘should’ do,” says Carlyle. “We’re socialized that it’s the ‘feminine’, ‘proper’ or ‘good’ thing to do.” As a result, women may inadvertently trigger each other’s disordered behaviors by eating little or feeling judged for eating more or “a lot.”
Overall, diet culture and its many ideals are simply (and sadly) hard to avoid. “In diet culture, eating less is often seen as morally superior,” adds Byrne. “Of course, that’s ridiculous, because we all need food.”
5 tips to ease the discomfort of eating more than others
While many of the messages floating around can complicate your ability to intuitively eat with a partner (or anyone, for that matter), mindfulness and remembering key truths can help you get through the meal easier. Here is what Carlyle and Byrne suggest:
1. Ask yourself if the thought is useful
…Because otherwise, it’s probably useless. Basically, ask yourself Why you have the thought, and if a “should” is involved. “When we ‘have to’ ourselves, it’s a good indicator that we need to take a moment to explore how that thought serves us,” says Carlyle. “For example, if I’m going out on a first date and I’m like, ‘Wow, this burger looks great, but I should probably have a salad instead. It can be very healthy to ask “why” behind it. If your “why” has to do with your date judging you, skip to tip number two. (Plus, if another person is making you feel bad about something as unimportant as what you want to eat, you deserve better! Just say it!)
2. Remember what you eat has nothing to do with your worth
As understandable as it is that many of us have confused our self-esteem with our food intake – thanks again, food culture – remember the two couldn’t be more independent. “The amount of food you eat has absolutely no bearing on your identity, your value as a person, or the strength and quality of your relationship,” says Byrne. Just as you probably wouldn’t feel worse about going to the bathroom than your partner, she adds, you don’t need to feel worse about eating more than them.
3. Focus on the experience (and remember your partner probably is too)
In the end, going out on a date is all about having fun and getting to know the other person, right? Try to be aware of these aspects. What do you learn about your partner? What do you appreciate? Carlyle says your partner is probably focusing on that too. The menu doesn’t have to be part of the equation (unless it’s the flavor of the dessert!).
4. Consider talking to an anti-diet therapist or dietitian
Although there is a lot of work you can do on your own, working with a health care provider can often provide additional support. “If you’re struggling with these kinds of thoughts, it may be helpful to contact a mental health professional to develop healthier thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,” says Carlyle. For more affordable therapists, you can check out the Open Path Collective database.
5. Remember that every body has different needs.
Ultimately, your best real-time bet is to listen to your body. What does he need (and want)? “We all have different metabolisms, activity levels, hormone levels, health states, appetites, etc.,” says Byrne. “If you’re trying to give your body what it needs and you feel comfortably full after eating, the best way to gauge how much to eat is to listen for internal signals of hunger and fullness, not external cues, like how much everyone is eating.”
Carlyle agrees. “It’s important to remember that if we all ate the exact same thing all the time, we would likely have very different bodies from each other,” she says. “You can’t determine what nutrients your body needs based on someone else’s intake.”