Tips for Supporting a Loved One with an Eating Disorder During the Holidays

The holidays can be a fun and festive time with friends and family, but they can also be filled with challenges and triggers for loved ones who struggle with disordered eating. Let’s take a closer look at why the holidays are so difficult for those with an active eating disorder or history of disordered eating behaviors and what we can do to help our friends and family members more easily navigate these challenges.

Why the holidays are so difficult for those with disordered eating.

Celebrations are often focused on food.

Many of the winter holidays are centered around and focused on food and social gatherings with friends and families. The social expectations can also be particularly challenging, given that many people struggling with eating disorders often experience a pull to socially isolate.

Normal routines are disrupted.

Deviations from expected schedules can be especially anxiety-provoking for those who are relying on structure to guide their eating behaviors. Your loved one’s treatment team members are also often out of the office or have modified schedules during the holidays. This can be rough for those new in their recovery who are used to consistent weekly appointments.

Reconnecting with others can cause anxiety.

Meeting and getting together with friends and family members not seen in awhile can often put them in an uncomfortable position of having to field questions about any changes in weight or appearance. Well-intentioned family may make comments that can result in anxiety or poor body image.

Expectations of joy and happiness.

The holidays are a time when it seems everyone is expected to be full of joy and happiness on a seemingly 24/7 basis. This is extremely hard for those struggling with eating disorders and other mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. They might ask themselves why they aren’t feeling happy or joyful when it seems like everyone else is. This can cause further feelings of isolation and depression.

Exercise and diet talk are more common.

During the holidays, conversations are often steeped in “compensatory” comments such as, “I need to run a few miles after this meal to burn off those extra calories,” or “My New Year’s Resolution is to get back into the gym at least five days a week to work off all these extra pounds I put on over the holidays! What’s your resolution?”

Holiday gatherings are also inundated with “diet talk” about various diets and restrictive meal plans. Often in these conversations, foods are labeled as “good” versus “bad” foods which reinforces negative food beliefs and take away from our loved one’s enjoyment of the gathering.

How to support ourselves and those we love who are struggling.

1. Avoid triggering topics of conversation.

Make every attempt to refrain from discussions about weight, calories, appearances, exercise, and diets. Find other exciting and interesting topics to chat about like asking about your family member’s or friend’s job, pet, hobby, or exciting vacation taken since you last saw them!

2. Catch yourself before labeling foods as “good” or “bad.”

Also avoid words suggesting that certain foods are better or worse than another, such as healthy or unhealthy, clean eating, guilty pleasure, sinful or indulgent. Recognize that all enjoyed foods have a deserved place at the table.

3. Keep remarks to yourself.

Don’t comment about what others choose to put on their plates or the quantities of food they are eating.

4. Steer clear of conversations about exercise and “burning off calories eaten.”

If exercise or running races during the holidays is a tradition in your family or friend group, try to come up with some new traditions that do not focus on physical activity.

5. Reach out to a loved one who is struggling before events.

If you know a loved one is struggling, and they have mentioned their eating disorder to you previously, it can often be incredibly helpful to each out to them before any gatherings to let them know you can be a support person to them during these get togethers.

6. Focus on your relationships.

Spend lots of quality time with your loved one who might be struggling; make an extra effort to have good conversations, while conveying support and love.

7. Study up on eating disorders.

Learn as much as you can beforehand about eating disorders and the toll they can take. The National Eating Disorder Associating (NEDA) has some great educational resources for loved ones.

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