The holidays are something we should all look forward to and enjoy, but they can be fraught for people with eating disorders. The combination of festive large meals and large gatherings of people who may not be your family of choice, as well as people you have not seen in a while, can be challenging for many people—and can be especially hard for those recovering from an eating disorder. When you eat in contexts different from the ones in which you eat on a daily basis, you naturally face a higher level of challenge. With appropriate pre-planning, it can usually be better managed.
I always suggest having a plan for each upcoming situation. Think through who will be there, what the food environment will be, and how you can best manage it. Try to anticipate how you will navigate the various food situations and the different social challenges. Identify supports ahead of time if you can. Have a plan for navigating diet and body talk. Breathe. Hopefully, the following suggestions will help you come up with your plan.
In many families and traditions, the very design of holiday meals can be a setup for disordered eating. Diet culture only facilitates this. The anticipation of a large meal on the holiday sends many into restriction, sometimes for several days, as they prepare for the holiday meal. They reason that since they are going to eat a lot at this festive meal, they will try to conserve calories—and go into the meal at a deficit. However, this is the opposite of what one should do; it merely becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more one restricts leading up to a holiday meal, the more likely that one will feel out of control at the meal.
Instead, eat regularly leading up to the holiday. Our bodies in most cases will appropriately override attempts at restriction. So, to avoid engaging in your eating disorder at the holiday meal, practice the opposite of restriction: eat regularly scheduled meals and snacks—approximately every three hours—throughout the days preceding the holiday and the day of. If you don’t go into your holiday dinner famished, you will be able to make more logical and appropriate decisions and are more likely to avoid disordered eating behaviors.
Plan ahead to eat a satisfying meal. If you struggle with disordered eating, it can be helpful to think about the meal ahead of time and plan specifically what you are going to eat. Families often follow a similar traditional menu every year—it is not hard to predict the foods that will be served and envision a plate that is satisfying and includes several food groups (starch, protein, vegetable, fruit, dairy, and fat). Plan for dessert as well. Celebrations are part of life. Enjoy them.
If on the other hand, you are not sure what will be on the menu, ask the host so you can plan accordingly. If it is a potluck, bring something you will enjoy and feel comfortable eating.
Challenge all-or-nothing thinking. Be aware of your own black-and-white thoughts about food and challenge them. Many people actively classify their eating behavior as either “being good” or “being bad.” They reason that if they are not restricting or “being good,” they might as well just give up and binge. Try to resist the temptation to either resort to restricting or entirely give up and just binge and then restrict after the holiday. This is a common trap. Just because it is a holiday doesn’t mean you need to engage in eating disorder behaviors. The more you work on regular eating throughout the year, the more present and engaged you’ll be at holiday meals; it becomes just another meal.
Remind yourself that you can eat these foods again: The belief that the holiday is the only time you’ll be able to have these foods reinforces an all-or-nothing mentality. Remind yourself that this type of food, while typical of this special occasion, can be made available on other days. For example, you can also enjoy leftovers the next day. You can even ask for recipes and make some of the special dishes on your own at an entirely different time of year.
Do an initial walkthrough of buffets before getting food: Buffets can be especially overwhelming for those who experience eating disorders and disordered eating. A good strategy is to first survey the buffet without taking any food. You can view all the food and make decisions about what to take without overloading your plate (because inevitably there are great things at the end). For example, choose proteins, some starches, a vegetable, and so on. Make and fill one complete composed plate. Seeing all of the food you intend to eat on the plate at one time will help ensure you are eating enough. Do the same with dessert. Let yourself eat what sounds good and move on.
Accept that it’s normal to indulge on holidays: That is okay and part of the joy of celebrating. If you are uncomfortably full or racked with guilt, sit with the feeling rather than erasing it with more food; most likely it will pass in a few minutes. Holiday meals are a way of connecting with others. Eating more indulgently on occasion is normal and won’t adversely affect your health.
Even if you end up soothing your anger or sadness with food, see it as feedback, not failure. Notice that you binged—and remind yourself that it’s just one meal. Practice self-compassion. The goal when there is a lapse is to learn from it and figure out how you can strengthen your recovery skills.
Plan ahead. For those in recovery, it can also be extremely helpful to plan ahead for potentially triggering situations. Think about where you have struggled in the past on holidays or where the challenges might lie and try to identify coping skills you used to navigate similar situations, and how you can practice them over the holiday period.
Practice self-care. Before the meal or in the days leading up, make sure you get some time to yourself and do something that is restorative such as meditating, going for a walk, talking to a support person, and prioritizing sleep. If you’re staying with family for an extended time, ensure you continue to have some downtime and alone time. Bring some comfort items in a soothing kit.
Identify a support person if possible. If you have a partner or friend or any family member who is aware of your eating issues, try to talk to them ahead of time about how they can support you if you get overwhelmed or struggle. You might even create a way of signaling them during the meal.
Managing Social Aspects
Identify potential triggers. You may have anxiety about the people you will see over the holidays. Many people may see friends and relatives they haven’t seen for a while, and you may feel anxious about anticipating judgment about your body, especially if you’ve experienced any recent changes in body size. Try to think through the different scenarios including the worst-case scenario and identify how you can cope if that were to come to pass. Remember that usually, the worst-case scenario does not occur and that the anticipation is often worse than the actual event.
Don’t feel compelled to reeducate others. You may also see relatives and friends who are stuck in diet culture who may make comments that can be triggering. If you feel an anti-diet approach has been personally helpful, you may be eager to share your knowledge with family members. You may want to help release them from their own diet prisons as well as transform them into HAES® advocates and supporters for your health. However, you’re likely not going to be able to proselytize them over the course of a meal or even the holiday period. Not everyone can get on board and breaking away from diet culture is a process that takes time. So set realistic expectations.
Focus on protecting yourself if the conversation turns to diet or body talk. You may not want to directly confront the talk. That’s okay. You may consider simply leaving the table to go to the restroom or gently changing the subject if you feel uncomfortable. It may help to have a conversation starter ready for such a scenario.
If you do choose to address it head-on, you could try saying something like:
- I’m trying to practice body positivity, or
- I’m choosing to focus on gratitude this holiday and not depriving myself,
- I’m working on being more flexible (or not commenting on other people’s bodies).
If someone comments on your own body or eating you could use any of the above strategies or politely respond that you do not wish to talk about your body or that you feel uncomfortable.
When things get tough, try to find some gratitude. If applicable, notice the appreciation you have for being among loved ones and enjoying a meal with people you care about.
If you are supporting a child or other loved one with an eating disorder, we outline strategies that may be helpful.