Holidays and Eating Disorders: Tips for Supporting a Loved One

By O'Connor Professional Group

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The holiday season is officially upon us. As the weather gets chillier and the nights longer, we often look to counteract the cold with festive get-togethers and holiday celebrations. Many of us are also busy planning our holiday menus and traditional fare. While the focus on food around this time of year can be a source of comfort and socializing throughout the winter months, for those suffering from an eating disorder, this can be the most terrifying and stressful time of the year. Below are some tips and strategies to be supportive of a loved one who may be struggling with eating behaviors around the holidays.

Offer a well-balanced menu

One reason why Thanksgiving and other holidays can be so difficult for someone with an eating disorder is that they are faced with multiple foods that they have grown fearful of. To sit down at a table topped with foods that may have been blacklisted can be highly anxiety producing. At the core of many eating disorder treatments is teaching an individual how to balance a plate with a variety of nutritious foods and proper portion sizes. A balance of protein, grains, and vegetables is key, and this balance can take the edge off of having to select a certain food that provokes fear. If possible, offer a variety of choices on your menu so that the individual does not have to solely focus on a particularly stressful food.

Avoid triggering topics of conversation at the table

When stress levels increase, a person often turns to using eating disorder behaviors to self-soothe. Some baseline topics to avoid while sitting down to a meal with your loved one include food, weight, exercise, calories or anything number-related. For instance, it is common for people at the Thanksgiving table to joke about how much they ate, how their clothes fit differently after dinner, etc. While these comments are often intended to be light-hearted, such statements can seriously impact a person struggling with an eating disorder. If you know that your loved one is feeling stressed about a particular topic, Thanksgiving is likely not the best time to bring it up. For example, if you know that your daughter is worried about her chemistry final, reserve any discussion related to school for another day. Focus on carefree and non-provocative topics at the table. If you are struggling to find neutral topics, discussing a favorite TV show, new movie, or book recommendation are always safe bets. Or suggest playing a word game—it’s amazing how quickly tension can dissipate when you are trying to think of actresses whose names begin with the letter S.

Have an activity on hand to help shift gears after the meal

After a stressful meal, it can often be challenging for an individual with an eating disorder to sit quietly with their thoughts. Distraction can be key in shifting the attention away from having just experienced a stressful food situation. Perhaps take a short family walk around the block, drive around the neighborhood to look at holiday decorations and Christmas lights, offer to play a board game, or watch a light-hearted movie together.

Remember that recovery doesn’t happen overnight

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, your loved one’s maladaptive behaviors will likely not disappear overnight. Recovery from an eating disorder is often a long, arduous process. It can take months or even years for an individual to receive proper treatment and begin shifting deeply ingrained, negative thoughts around food and body image. Be patient and understand that behaviors will likely not improve just because it is a holiday or celebration.

Empathize, empathize, empathize

Understandably, it is incredibly painful to watch someone you care about battle an eating disorder. While it may be agonizing to bear witness to their behaviors during a joyous occasion, remember that they are also in pain. Try not to personalize your loved one’s moodiness, low energy, or pass on a certain dish. Avoid picking a fight or snapping back at a certain behavior or comment made. Instead, let the person know that you care about them and are there for them when the going gets tough. And remember that this time of year is just about the toughest it can get for someone with an eating disorder.

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