An Exploration Of The Meaning Of Food-related Occupations For Individuals With Lived Experience Of Anorexia

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Background: The occupations associated with food and eating are meaningful parts of our everyday lives and used therapeutically within the domain of occupational therapy in the field of eating disorders. Despite the importance of this, the meaning of food-related occupations has received little empirical attention.

It is argued misconceptions around anorexia hinder effective treatment and form barriers to therapeutic relationships, underlining the call for eating disorder research to further integrate lived experience. Exploring the meaning of food-related occupations phenomenologically can offer much needed insight into the everyday experience of being anorexic.

Aim: The aim of this doctoral research is to generate new knowledge within an area relatively unexplored, considering how individuals with lived experience of anorexia experience and make meaning from food-related occupations.

Objectives: Explore the meaning of food and eating across time and analyse the wider factors which contribute to these meanings for individuals with anorexia prior to and during treatment, including their current daily experiences. Critically consider how findings can be applied within occupational therapy practice and inform conceptual understandings around meaning within occupational therapy.

These were achieved through addressing the following research questions: What are the experiences and meanings of food and eating for those with lived experience of anorexia before and during treatment? How do individuals with lived experience of anorexia experience and give meaning to food and eating in their day-to-day life?

Methodology and methods: This research utilised Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), rooted in its three philosophical tenets: phenomenology, hermeneutics and idiography. Data was gathered from in-depth interviews with nine individuals with lived experience of anorexia, exploring their experiences of food-related occupations during their illness, in treatment and in recovery. Findings were analysed using the analytical steps of IPA laid out by Smith, Flowers, and Larkin (2022).

Findings: The research found five interrelated meaning constructs:
1) meaningful doing,
2) meaningful being,
3) meaning belonging,
4) meaningful resisting and
5) meaningful becoming.

Conclusion: Food-related meanings in anorexia are not haphazard, static, or one-dimensional, rather they serve a purpose; are complex, embodied, dynamic, and culturally situated. Findings support the theoretical concept the dark side of occupation, which contests long-standing notions that occupations are only positive and health-promoting. The findings call attention to the complex and diverse nature of occupational meaning and the importance of including occupational therapists, who have a holistic, and experiential focus, in the treatment of eating disorders.
Date of AwardSept 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorBex Twinley (Supervisor), Chris Cocking (Supervisor) & David Haines (Supervisor)

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