“I don’t know your eating habits yet,” a man I found attractive said as he dropped a gigantic mound of homemade pesto pasta before me, “but I hope this is enough.”

A million thoughts flashed through my mind as I placed a fork in the caloric mass. Not yet. It isn’t time. Sauce trickling down my dress was the least of my worries. Instead, it was the thought of allowing myself to really eatlike toss back and hungrily appreciate this gorgeous gesture — that plagued my mind. It seemed as unlikely to happen as me whispering to him the darkest, deepest secrets of my soul.

And I know I’m not alone in this.

For women, dating someone new is like performing a months-long magic trick. We gradually allow potential partners small glimpses into our lives, giving them just enough details to fit with our desired personas.

It’s hard to pretend this internal food-related debate doesn’t exist in many women. It seems superficial to judge someone based on what they eat on a first date, but it happens. Even before meaningful words are exchanged, what we do or don’t eat represents who we are.

In fact, in a study from Aarhus University, they showed 80 college students photographs of people and asked to rate them based on attractiveness. In the second part of the survey, they were then asked how much money they were willing to spend on candy and snacks versus healthier foods.

When the women rated the photographed men as attractive, they were far more likely to spend money on healthier food. Women who felt no attraction to the subject, and all the men in general, weren’t as prone to making those healthy choices.

While it’s unknown if these women have an eating disorder, the complex relationship of food, body image, and first impressions has always been intertwined.

Dove released a comprehensive study in 2016 on self-esteem and confidence, interviewing 10,500 females in 13 countries. They found that 85 percent of women and 79 percent of girls would opt out of activities when they didn’t like the way they looked. How they saw themselves affected how they made decisions too.

  • 7 out of 10 girls with low body-esteem reported that they wouldn’t be assertive in their decisions
  • 9 out of 10 women reported that they’d stop eating or put their health at risk

Amelia S., 27, of Washington D.C., edged on the side of heavily restricting her food intake, so much so that she shrank from a muscular to thin frame. For years, restriction bred a precise schedule, one that didn’t allow room for dating. As long as the weight stayed down, she was safe.

That is, until she met Quentin in the teacher’s cafeteria at work. “I had a kids’ portion lunch and a green apple, like I did every day. After talking and giggling, I scraped my full plate into the trash and saved my green apple for later.” The line was drawn in the sand: she liked him, could see herself with him, and therefore couldn’t yet be seen eating.

The first time she spent the night, she learned that his ex had three masters and a PhD. Immediately, Amelia felt inferior. But in her mind, she remained “better” than the ex in one capacity: she was thinner.

As their relationship grew, they had “a very don’t ask, don’t tell approach to food.” Gradually, after months of bonding, trust, and being open, Amelia’s sense of safety grew. Formerly forbidden food, from McDonalds to Thai food, slowly became fair game.

But it didn’t last. The night they broke up, she washed eight cartons of ice cream down the drain.

“When he got promoted and I didn’t, my anxiety was bad enough that I didn’t want to eat anyway,” Amelia shares. “Without him, I can do whatever I want. Right now, it’s eating maintenance calories.”

But often, developed, supportive relationships are an important factor in the symptom improvement and recovery in eating disorders. That’s what happened with Penny C., 24, of Michigan.

Penny C developed bulimia nervosa during the first months of her new relationship with an older man. “For him to keep me — a “silly little girl” around — I felt I had to shrink.” And she did, either by vomiting or restricting any food she ate without him.

“Standing beside him, I felt dizzy and inarticulate, but thin enough to be his partner. I allowed myself to eat the foods we had together: pizza, pasta, all foods that ‘weren’t allowed’ in my normal life. It was fun not to care about every single calorie. With him, I didn’t feel so guilty. And gradually, as our lives merged and we moved in together and became partners, the purging stopped.”

Eventually, Penny did tell her partner about her bulimia, eliminating the final boundary between them. “When I finally told him, I was allowing him to see me truly for the first time. He finally had the complete picture. And he didn’t abandon me.”

Megan K., 26, of Indianapolis, doesn’t think much about food on a date and has never had an eating disorder. “I have always thought if my partner can’t appreciate downing a big burger with me, then I’m better off indulging on my own,” she says. “I might not order something that’s too messy on the first few dates, but other than that, no way.”

For Megan, the barrier is around something that happened in her family. When she was 16, her mother died by suicide. “I don’t bring up my mom or how she died,” Megan acknowledges. “The ones who never learn didn’t deserve to find out. They’ll never really know me.”

Of course, that’s what eating with a new date comes down to, doesn’t it? A kind of interrogation, a “sniffing out.” Food is a catalyst for conversation, a chess piece in getting to know someone. We can hide behind bites, to swallow down the words we want to eventually say — after we decide if the person sitting across from us deserves to hear them.

Over giggles and laughs, between small bites of pesto pasta, I size up my attractive newcomer, watching body language and banter for signs of red flags, for anything wrong. Watching, waiting, for him to find a reason not to like me back.

When fear doesn’t turn into reality, I take another bite.

And then another.

Because the people we meet when dating may be the people we choose to join forces with in life. They may be one of the reasons we free ourselves and find peace. All of this dating and eating and life may begin imperfectly, but it can still end honestly.

Can one possibly eat pesto pasta and look in the mirror hours later without regret? The answer is maybe. We all have it in us to try.

Eating disorders are serious illnesses that can lead to life-threatening complications due to malnutrition or nutrient deficiency. Symptoms of an eating disorder may include lack of menstruation in females, muscle weakness, brittle hair and nails, and more. For support, contact the National Eating Disorders Association’s Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour support, text “NEDA” to 741741.

Allison Krupp is an American writer, editor, and ghostwriting novelist. Between wild, multi-continental adventures, she resides in Berlin, Germany. Check out her website here.