Reader dilemma: 'I'm a teenager, and all my friends talk about is food and dieting'

"Don’t take responsibility for your friends’ eating habits. You can’t influence how they behave by how you behave. Their obsession with food and looks may well just be a phase."

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Dear Virginia,

I’m 15 and one of my friends has very abnormal eating habits. I told our teacher, and the teacher told her parents. But her eating habits seem to have affected my other best friend and now all they can talk about is diets and healthy eating. I’ve been told by my teacher not to discuss food or appearance with them, which is tricky, and just to eat “normally”. But I’m starting to worry whether I eat healthily or not. What is normal? I don’t want to be anorexic or overweight. I hate having to behave like this. Can you help?

Yours sincerely, 

Thea

Virginia says...

How can you possibly behave “normally” when you’ve been told by a teacher not to discuss food or appearance with your friends? I hate to go against your teacher’s advice, but surely she knows that the moment you’re told not to mention something, it’s the only thing that springs to mind? It’s like the episode of Fawlty Towers in which Basil says, “Don’t mention the war,” when there are German guests. As a result, every five minutes he’s discussing concentration camps. And if you want proof of this, try not thinking of the word “kangaroo” for the next five minutes. Just try. You won’t be able to stop it popping into your head. It’ll drive you mad.

So, talk to your friends just as you would to anyone else. Join in their conversations about diets. Chat about clothes. They’re interesting topics! Be normal – and being normal may actually mean discussing anorexia and binge eating with them, if they pop up in conversation.

If you’re worried about whether you’re getting too slim or too fat, why don’t you simply eat exactly what you like every day, and then weigh yourself at the end of each week, in the morning before breakfast? Unless you see an obvious increase or decrease over the months, you might find that you’ll stay at much the same weight, give or take a few pounds here or there.

I’m not suggesting that you weigh yourself to keep at some prescribed weight, just to show you that eating what you like, in most cases, doesn’t make a huge difference to your weight. Some people can stuff themselves and still stay slim. Some can diet and still stay fat.

Give your body a chance to have a say in all this – because your body, over which you have no control, plays a far greater part in deciding your weight than we imagine.

As for eating healthily, my own view is not to stick too rigidly to guidelines. The “five-a-day” fruit and vegetables rule isn’t written in stone by any means. It’s a good idea, perhaps, but I rarely have more than one, if that. The recommended number of safe alcohol units to be consumed was a random number just plucked out of the air, apparently. Henry VIII, it always comforts me to learn, never ate vegetables in his life. Other people, as we know, never eat meat. On the whole, in the West, most of us eat reasonable enough diets to tick along, whatever we eat.

Finally, don’t take responsibility for your friends’ eating habits. You’ve done what you can about the first friend – now it’s up to her and her family. Same with the other friend. You can’t influence how they behave by how you behave. And anyway, their obsession with food and looks may well just be a phase. Let them be and just enjoy their company when you can.

Readers say...

Set them an example

Girls your age having bad eating habits is common, and nothing new. In the Seventies I wasted 10 years “dieting”, during which time I yo-yoed, becoming two stone overweight. Eventually, I discovered the benefits of exercise and healthy eating, lost the excess weight without trying, and remain slim to this day. Try to influence your friends by setting a similar example. Your body will thank you in the future.

Liz White

by email

Give your friends time

I was in exactly your situation when I was at school and I found it helpful to talk to the school counsellor. She helped me to see that my friend was ill, and that it was natural for me to be affected by her illness. Your teacher is wise to tell you not to discuss food and appearance with your friend. I know how hard it is, but try not to become engaged in any conversations on these subjects. If necessary, you have to walk away. Like you, I found that an obsession with dieting seemed to become fashionable among other friends as a result of my friend’s illness, but the obsession was temporary and none of them became sick in the same way, so if you give your other friends time they may get past this phase.

F Dickens

by email

Help her to heal

“Normal” eating is such a slippery concept but think of it this way: normal has to be what works for you. But if someone is persistently planning and fantasising about food and weight loss to the point where it’s all they seem to talk about, then it has become an obsession.

The next time that you have a private conversation, explain to her that you’re worried her fixated eating habits are making her unhappy. Listen, don’t judge, and above all, don’t lecture. Eating disorders are complicated and the worst thing you could do is say directly that she is anorexic and needs to eat more. It won’t work and may push both friends away.

Don’t take it upon yourself to fix things  – you can’t tell anyone what to do – but be clear that you will always be there no matter what. Support is what’s important. You’d be surprised how asking a simple question like “What would make you feel better?” can lead to a good conversation about how you can help someone to heal.

Emilie Lamplough

by email

Next week's dilemma

Our son is 34 years old and has only had one job since he left school, which he walked out of after six months. He has an IQ of 85, no self-confidence, and is basically frightened of life, spending all day in his room in self-imposed isolation, on antidepressants.

We don’t know how to help him, and even talking to him is very difficult. I am now 75 and my wife is three years younger. His three brothers are making their own way and doing quite well. But what will happen to him when we are no longer around? Where can we get help?

Yours sincerely,

Brian

What would you advise Brian to do? To answer this dilemma, or to share your own problem, write to dilemmas@independent.co.uk.

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