Enjoying the Holidays With an Eating Disorder

Oftentimes, people struggling with an eating disorder hear things like “If you just eat more, you’ll be fine.”  Or “Why can’t you just eat? You’d feel so much better.”  Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. The holidays present an even bigger challenge to work toward balanced meals while maintaining a healthy emotional outlook on food. All while seemingly everyone else cooks, bakes and eats their way through the next few months. The “holidays” start at Halloween and continue through New Year’s. When someone is dealing with an eating disorder their anxiety surrounding the holidays starts much earlier.

Here are some things to consider when you are examining how the holiday “food frenzy” might be causing distress for someone with an eating disorder:

  • There are MANY more events related to food at this time of the year. Family parties, work events, advertisements for festive community events, and many, if not all of them, offer food.
  • Much of the “food” offered at these events are foods that cause distress for people with an eating disorder. Consider the increase in “sweet treats” and higher calorie/higher fat appetizers and “once a year foods” such as stuffing or pecan pie that is readily available.
  • There is a great deal of “socializing” that involves food and drink choices. Someone with an eating disorder may feel “judged” if they don’t take part in the food offered.
  • These holidays are happening at a time when it’s already darker and colder which can contribute to seasonal depression and heighten eating disorder symptoms.

Helpful Tips

So how can we all enjoy the holidays a little more? Here are some tips for the person with the eating disorder as well as for those that love and care about someone with an eating disorder.

Let’s start with the individual with the eating disorder first:

  • Be honest about how you are feeling. Share with a close friend or support person what you are concerned about.
  • Try not to overbook yourself. You aren’t obligated to attend every event you are invited to.
  • Make new holiday traditions that work better for you at this stage in your recovery/treatment. Consider coffee with the family later in the day instead of the full meal so you can stay on track with your meals without increasing your stress/anxiety.
  • Ask someone you trust to accompany you to whatever event you are attending. Tell them ahead of time what your concerns are about the event and plan a strategy to keep yourself on track.
  • Stick as closely to your treatment plan as possible. Getting the proper nutrition is vital to keeping your health maximized when you are facing an increase in your stress levels.

For the person supporting someone with the eating disorder:

  • Be patient. Sometimes just being there as a friendly face is enough. You don’t have to “police the food” to be helpful.
  • Talk about a strategy for approaching the new foods at the event ahead of time. Have a plan in place for how long you will be staying at the event.
  • Help the individual focus on the non-food aspects of the holidays. Talk about the decorations, the music, etc. and try not to only talk about what the person is or isn’t eating.
  • Have an exit strategy in place. If the anxiety gets too high, then leaving might be the best option. Give a lot of support and encouragement to them for going to the event and spending whatever time was spent.

Keep in mind, eating disorder recovery is a long process. Controlling what is eaten, when it’s eaten and how much is eaten is a very central part of developing an eating disorder. Being surrounded by a lot of food all at once as well as an increased number of people and noise can be overwhelming.  Help your loved one remember why the holidays can be fun and focus on time spent together with or without food.

Jennifer Gilliland is an outpatient dietitian with ProMedica and a professional clinical counselor. She enjoys talking with people about the behavioral side of eating as well as educating people on the healthiest food choices.