The holidays are a time to focus on friends, family, thankfulness, and – in most houses – food. Holiday meals can last for hours with multiple courses of elaborate, filling foods. For people who struggle with eating or are diagnosed with an eating disorder, the holidays can be a time of stress, anxiety, and discomfort. I wanted to share some helpful tips for those with an eating disorder and their friends and family during the holiday season.
In reading this article, please remember that every person is different. If your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, ask them how you can help during the holiday time. The best thing you can do for your loved one is to address their needs how they would like you to. For more resources and information, check out The National Eating Disorder’s guide to helping.
If you have an eating disorder…
If you have an eating disorder, the holidays can be stressful. Many traditional foods served could be unfamiliar in your daily life or may make you feel uncomfortable, and people tend to make more comments about weight or “feeling fat” during holiday meals. If you’re more accustomed to eating smaller snacks throughout the day, a full, long meal can feel impossible. A day that is supposed to be fun and family-focused could be ruined by fear and/or stress surrounding food.
I know this because that’s how most holidays are for me. I struggle with anxiety about different foods, large meals, and family attention focused on eating. Here are some of the things I have learned over the years (and through lots of therapy) that help me survive the holiday season.
1. Set Personal Boundaries.
Setting personal boundaries, especially with family members, may be really difficult, but your health and wellbeing deserved to be taken care of. If family members are asking you questions you don’t feel comfortable answering, it’s totally okay to say things like, “let’s talk about something else” or “I want to focus on being together right now.” Protect your own mental health by knowing what you’re willing to talk about and what won’t be helpful to discuss during stressful mealtimes.
2. If You Feel Comfortable, Tell People How They Can Help.
If your family and friends know about your eating disorder and you feel comfortable discussing it, tell them how they can help you during this time. Chances are that they want to help you but they don’t know how. Letting them know your needs – whether it be just sitting with you, holding your hand, or not discussing the topic at all – will help them feel empowered to help you get through the day.
3. Make a Plan Before the Day Begins.
Preparing for a difficult day ahead of time can help ease some anxiety. For me personally, I like to know all of the options for food during a holiday meal so I can plan what I am going to eat. Each person is different, so pay attention to your own needs. If you feel like it would be helpful to have a soothing playlist to listen to during the meal, make it the day before! If you find it helpful to participate in cooking to understand what’s in each dish, do that! If you know that spending a couple of minutes alone doing guided meditation or breathing exercises before or after the meal would help you, pick out which ones you’ll do in advance. This preparation stage is all about setting yourself up for success and creating coping skills you can use when stress and anxiety run high.
4. Focus on the Reason for the Season (Not the Food).
During mealtime, if you feel yourself becoming stressed or anxious, try to focus on anything but the food. Reminisce about your favorite memories if you’re with your family for the holidays. Talk about your favorite stories with your friends. Take a break from the food to sit with your pet. Anything that will distract you from eating will help make the process easier and allow you to enjoy the meal the most you can.
6. Reach Out for Additional Help.
If you need additional help during the holidays and would like to talk to a professional, the National Eating Disorder Association is having special holiday hours. You can live chat or call with professionals who are willing to help talk you through your experiences.
If you are a friend or family member of someone with an eating disorder…
If you are a family member or friend of someone with an eating disorder, the holiday season might not all smiles and joy for you either. As someone who has an eating disorder, I know that most family members and friends worry (a lot) about my health and wellbeing. I’ve been told it can feel isolating or that families/friends can feel helpless in situations that are hard for their loved one. Here are some tips that I’ve shared with my family and friends. Hopefully, these help you, too.
1. Ask Them What They Need.
Sometimes it’s hard for someone to speak up about their diagnosis and ask for help. That person may not want to feel like a burden to everyone else. By asking that person what they need from you personally, you eliminate the step of them having to build up the courage to ask for help. The biggest portion of this advice is: LISTEN. If your loved one says they don’t want to talk about it, don’t push. If they want to cry about it, be there for them. Listen to understand, not to respond.
2. Be Aware of What You Say.
Hearing about food can be very difficult for someone with an eating disorder. Making comments about weight, calories, or dieting aren’t helpful, and can actually cause eating disorder behavior. If the person you love has made their boundaries clear to you, make sure you respect those boundaries of what is off topic or off limits to talk about. Below are some suggestions of more helpful and positive things to say, courtesy of Alyse Ruriani Design and the National Eating Disorder Association.
3. Focus on Them, Not What They Eat or Don't Eat.
Just like talking about weight and calories isn’t helpful, making comments about your loved one’s body isn’t helpful either. Don’t comment about them losing weight/gaining weight. Focus on the person and the things you love about them, not how they look. Be supportive about what they do choose to eat, however big or small it may be.
4. Plan Activities That Aren't Centered Around Eating.
Take a walk with a dog. Do a puzzle. Play games. Watch a movie. Build a fire. Watch old family videos. Create a fun holiday cocktail. Doing anything that isn’t food focused during the holiday season will probably be a much-appreciated relief for anyone who has an eating disorder. You can do anything! It’s a great chance to get creative with family members or friends.
5. Let Them Know They Aren't Alone.
Having an eating disorder can be lonely and isolating. Let your loved one know they aren’t alone in the process, and you are there to help them on their own terms. Sometimes, all it takes is a hug and a hand squeeze to let that person know you’ve got their back – in the good times and the bad.