How To Support Your Friends Living With Eating Disorders During The Holidays

Food is an epicenter of Millennial and Gen Z culture: From social media to viral videos to waiting in line for hours for the latest food trend, restaurants are even plating their dishes more beautifully in hopes diners will notice and share to social media. While the culture surrounding food and the added excitement of Thanksgiving, Hannukah or Christmas can be easy to get caught up in this time of year, it’s also easy to forget how this food-centric, holiday culture effects people with eating disorders.

NationalEatingDisorders.org estimates that of the current population, 20 million women and 10 million men will battle an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Eating disorders can range from under-eating, to purging to over-eating and the mental side effects are equally as harmful as the physical. The daily struggle of choosing what to eat and when to eat is a struggle enough, but as the holidays approach the fear and anxieties are only amplified as those living with eating disorders are now forced to face their struggles with people around, and more importantly people who might be aware of what they’re going through. 

Chelsea Jackson, a junior at Iowa State knows firsthand just how hard the battle of an eating disorder can be, and even more so around this time of year.

 “While I don't celebrate Thanksgiving, I know that holidays can be the most difficult time for anyone suffering from eating disorders," she said. "As someone who has battled with bouts of anorexia and bulimia since I was 6-years-old, I know the best thing that friends and family can do whenever they eat around an ED survivor is to ignore how much they're eating and make no mention of their weight or eating habits."

And, of course, when in doubt, it's never a bad idea to refrain from commenting on someone's eating habits in the first place.

"While they might be a healthy weight, they could still be struggling with the fact that they have gained weight and the implication of this weight gain can risk their progress.” 

"Mentioning a survivor's 'healthy' weight or appearance can as be a harmful trigger," Jackson said. "While they might be a healthy weight, they could still be struggling with the fact that they have gained weight and the implication of this weight gain can risk their progress.” 

And while progress and recovery is key, tackling a Thanksgiving meal should be done so at your own pace. Joanne Larsen, dietitian at  www.dietitian.com offers.

 “People in recovery from eating disorders can decide for themselves what and how much to eat at Thanksgiving. They don't and will resist monitoring by other well-intended folks...Modeling mindful eating by not eating to excess helps reinforce that a person can select moderate portions of food and push away your plate when full.” She also adds, “A pause in eating is a good sign to stop eating and push away your plate signaling to others at the table that you are done eating. Talking during a meal when not eating is helpful in slowing down the pace of a meal by engaging people in conversation.”

 

Eating disorders go beyond the pumpkin pie and second helpings of stuffing during Thanksgiving and can pinpoint underlying issues that may have been brewing under the surface. Research shows that eating disorders can be linked back to personality traits such as perfectionism, childhood trauma and low self-esteem. Therefore, the environment someone with an eating disorder finds themselves in, could be just as difficult to deal with, as the food itself. 

Rebecca*, a sophomore in college who has battled with an eating disorder also notes that it's important to separate food from the holidays, whenever possible.

"The goal for today is for you to enjoy that stuff. So as much as you can, don't stress about food. If you think you can conquer a fear food today, then do it, but if you're more comfortable sticking to your meal plan or any foods that you're comfortable with, then do that."

"Remember why you used to love Thanksgiving. It was never the food, was it? You liked the food, but more importantly, you loved spending time with family. You loved cooking with your mom. You loved the warmth of the fireplace and hearing your family joke around and seeing your cousins. The goal for today is for you to enjoy that stuff. So as much as you can, don't stress about food. If you think you can conquer a fear food today, then do it, but if you're more comfortable sticking to your meal plan or any foods that you're comfortable with, then do that." 

And her advice for those who know of someone battling an eating disorder at the Thanksgiving table? Cut the calorie, diet-culture talk.

"Don't talk about calories. Don't act like you need to burn things off. There's no place for that at the Thanksgiving dinner," she said. "Talk about what you're thankful for. Bring love to the table. This goes regardless of whether you have a family member recovering from an eating disorder. You never know what people are dealing with!"

Thanksgiving is a time to come together and reflect on all the wonderful things we have been given. So whether you're battling an eating disorder or know someone who is this holiday season, be mindful of yourself and others, and above all else practice self-love. The food is merely what brought you to the table, now use that table for good. 

*Her name has been changed to respect her privacy