Table Setting

How to Support Loved Ones with Eating Disorders at Thanksgiving

At least 30 million people in the U.S. struggle with an eating disorder, and for most of them, Thanksgiving is one of the hardest times of the year. It’s a holiday where you’re surrounded by food and faced with free time. On top of that, diet culture- which our culture validates year-round-  is especially prevalent during the holiday season. Not only are we faced with the media pushing disordered eating habits, but we also hear family members engage in these behaviors. Most people are stressed during this busy time of year, which adds to the anxiety that those in recovery are already experiencing. Alex Gonçalves, Ph.D., the Assistant Vice President and Clinical Director at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, explained that “people with eating disorders, who often struggle with their own internal experience, can find the emotional environment of holidays to be overwhelming… They may also experience intense self-judgment for not feeling so happy when everyone else appears to be.” With that being said, it is important to support those with eating disorders on Thanksgiving.

  1. 1. Stop with the negative body talk!

    "The diet starts tomorrow,” “this [insert food item here] is going straight to my [insert body part here],” “I’ll need to work this off tomorrow,” the list goes on and on. These phrases can be incredibly damaging to someone in recovery from an ED, especially if they’re challenging themselves by eating (for example) a piece of pie, only to hear a family member saying, “I’m so bad for eating this pie!” If this happens, change the subject or go to another room. Dena Cabrera, executive clinical director of Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders, said, "there are all these really meaningful aspects of the holidays that tend to get lost in the mix when everything is focused on 'Oh, I'm going to indulge in this pie,' or 'I'm going to have to make up for this.' ... It takes a conscious shift because this type of approach and this language has become so ingrained."

     

    (Side note: NEVER comment about what’s on someone else’s plate unless you’re going to say “that looks delicious!”)

  2. 2. Be a Support System

    Seeing a therapist and nutritionist before Thanksgiving is beneficial to someone with an ED, and they can help come up with a plan. However, it’s also helpful for them to have someone they can trust and who is aware of (and understand) their eating disorder at the table, whether it is a family member, significant other, or friend. Before the holiday, ask them, “How can I support you?” You don’t even have to be there physically- you can text or call them. You can practice potential stressful scenarios with them and create a backup plan. For someone in recovery, knowing that someone has their back can take a lot of the weight off of their shoulders. 

  3. 3. Don’t say anything about the physical appearance of someone suffering from an eating disorder

    If the person is in recovery and someone comments on their appearance, it can make them think that “I’ve gained weight and everyone can tell.” If the person is currently struggling with an eating disorder, it is also incredibly damaging. Kesha stated during an acceptance speech at the Billboard Women in Music Awards, “when I was very, very sick, and getting sicker, I kept hearing about how much better and better I was looking."Ask others how they’re doing, what TV show they’re obsessed with right now, anything that doesn’t have to do with physical appearance shift the focus away from bodies!

  4. 4. Don’t try to correct how they are feeling

    Some people try to correct behaviors of those with eating disorders, and while they have good intentions, it does more harm than good. Dr. Stephanie Zerwas, a clinical psychologist, says that “eating disorders don’t respond to logic and argument. They do respond to love, empathy, and compassion... Instead of trying to fix your family members by showing them the error of their eating disorder thoughts, let them know that you have empathy for how they are feeling, and ask them what kind of help they would like.”

 

 

Supporting a friend/family member with an eating disorder, always takes communication, empathy, and compassion, especially during the holiday season. Listen to them, but consult mental health professionals when needed. Helping in little ways such as those listed above can make the holiday a much more comfortable and enjoyable time for someone with an ED. 

 

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder and want to speak with someone, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text NEDA to 741741, or speak with a trained Helpline volunteer here.