When Food is Family

When Food is Family CoverAs you read Dr. Scheel’s blog posts, she regularly reference the multi-causal factors of eating disorders and the research associated with them. Some people have taken this out of context. Identification of these multi-causal factors started a strong dialogue in professional circles about the heavy linking of genes as the causation – which has yet to be proved.

This can be a perfect storm for those with predispositions (e.g. anxiety & depression predating the eating disorder,) temperamental influences and personality issues (e.g. perfectionism) and psychological issues (internal struggles about guilt, anger, shame, desires, metaphoric appetites.) The storm can be further exacerbated by familial issues, the environment, culture, society and the impact of social media. Though having an eating disorder is a significant and debilitating disorder, it also serves as a symptom to larger and deeper conflicts.

Dr. Scheel’s book has contributed to the way that professionals look at eating disorders, as well as strategies for successful recovery.

About Dr. Scheel’s Book

When Food is Family details how familial issues and the family’s relationships with each other can play a role, sometimes a significant one, in the development of an eating disorder. Nature may stack the deck, but nurture plays the hand. This book is based on the framework of Attachment Theory – that emotional support, understanding, empathy, and acceptance during a child’s development are the foundation of self-esteem and self-worth throughout life. Without healthy attachments, self-esteem is diminished and the capacity for empathy toward self and others is impaired. When this happens, a relationship with food becomes a replacement for the healthy relationships a child craves – it provides a false sense of self-esteem and is a way to measure one’s worth that may seem simpler than the complex world of human interaction.

Eating Disorders are a family affair. When Food is Family allows family members to explore and rebuild relationships with each other that were damaged before the eating disorder evolved and continue to be impacted by its existence. The book teaches families, through expository text, experiential reflections, and step-by-step exercises, how to develop an “emotional language.” It explains that trust, empathy, and respect are the core methods by which we communicate our love for one another, and teaches readers how to experience and convey these concepts toward each other – especially toward the person with the eating disorder. When Food is Family helps build a relational infrastructure within the family that is critical for dismantling the eating disorder, and it shows how to maintain healthy bonds in the family and in relationships yet to come. The book provides family members with a step-by-step approach to understand what attachment means, why connection to each other is important, how relationship breakdowns can lead to an eating disorder, how food becomes the relationship of choice, and how to go about repairing these relationships so that food, and the eating disorder, are replaced by healthy relationships within the family.



As a practicing psychiatrist and educator who treats eating disorders, I am often asked the question by a patient, family member, or student, “What are the best available books to assist in the ‘real world’ treatment of eating disorders? Are there any books that offer guidelines that are accessible, sound, and not ‘watered down’?” Dr. Judy Scheel’s When Food is Family is such a text. I recommend it enthusiastically and will keep it on my bookshelf to suggest to families who come for consultation and treatment.

– Kathryn J. Zerbe, MD
Professor of Psychiatry & Training
Supervising Psychoanalyst

Eating disorders create and deepen disconnection within families. Parents often struggle to understand their child’s inability to change behaviors that are often life threatening and intractable. Eating disorders also thrive in disconnection and full recovery usually involves not only nutritional and weight restoration but real relationship repair and restoration as well.

When Food is Family provides clear and sophisticated exercises for rebuilding attachment and connection. Grounded in the science and research of attachment theory, these guided self-explorations will help families re-establish the empathy, security, and connection necessary for lasting recovery from these complicated illnesses.

– Douglas W. Bunnell, Ph.D., FAED


Families coping with clinical eating disorders have hungered long and hard for a book like When Food Is Family. Based on her decades of experience, Judy Scheel has written the clearest, most user-friendly guide to understanding and addressing the complex emotional and relational issues underlying these frightening and mysterious problems. No shame or blame games here — just information showing how disruptions in relationships or attachments have affected the individual and how these can be healed. Clearly, concisely, and compassionately, When Food Is Family conceptualizes the eating disorder as a metaphorical quest for comfort through food and provides exercises to help families and patients develop a language of emotions so feelings can be expressed directly instead of through self-destructive behaviors. When Food Is Family fills a gaping hole in the eating disorder literature — this is the one book I will recommend to all family members facing an eating disorder.

– Margo Maine, PhD, FAED, CEDS


When Food is Family is an excellent book for anyone who struggles with an eating disorder and for their loved ones, especially parents of someone struggling with an eating disorder. As Dr. Scheel says in her book, ‘This book is written primarily for parents, guardians, and other family members who have a child with an eating disorder still in the home’ (p. 9). I love Dr. Scheel’s approach because she manages to give parents ways to help their child without blaming the parents for causing the eating disorders. This book provides exercises in each chapter to help parents explore their thoughts and feelings about the eating disorder and provide promptings for change. She also includes exercises specifically for the person who is struggling with the eating disorder. I love this hands-on approach because it gives the readers something to do. And when you’re wanting to help a loved one but don’t know how, doing something feels so good! This book explores some good basics that should be addressed in therapy, such as emotions, body image, family dynamics, setting boundaries, and the definition of “recovery” (such a loaded word, right?).  She offers some great insights and suggestions in all these areas. My favorite phrase in the whole book? ‘Gentle perseverance.’ Love it! That’s her recommendation for parents attempting to open up more meaningful communication with their son or daughter. That basically sums up both my experience in treating those diagnosed with an eating disorders AND my goal as a parent. (I say that it’s my goal as a parent because sometimes I don’t feel so gentle!) Dr. Scheel includes some great resources at the end of the book for anyone looking for eating disorder treatment–websites, treatment centers, how to know when to seek treatment, etc.

– Amy Harman
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist