Eating Disorders during the Holidays: Tips for Supporting Your Loved One

Can I be blunt for a second? I dread the holidays.

I love spending time with friends and family, buying gifts that I know those people will love, and attending themed gatherings, but the holidays bring an extra level of stress and obligation. Sometimes I wonder if that’s a common feeling that no one wants to talk about or if I primarily feel that way because I have an eating disorder (ED). As we all know, from Halloween to Thanksgiving to the religious holidays many of us celebrate to New Years Day, there are a multitude of social gatherings, and with them often comes a big emphasis on food.

So, as someone who has been in the depths of my ED in recent holidays seasons and as someone who now manages much better around food, I have some tips for supporting a loved one during this stressful time of year!

  1. Avoid food/weight/calorie talk. It doesn’t help any person at the table when someone comments on how much anyone has or hasn’t eaten, the food restriction or exercise they need to “start tomorrow,” the calories that do or don’t count, or the weight gain or loss of oneself/a family member/even a celebrity. Questions like, “Don’t you want to eat more?” are just as harmful as “Are you sure you want to eat that?” Many people have rocky relationships with food and their bodies – let’s not put an emphasis on it no matter who is at the gathering – and if someone with an eating disorder is present, those comments can be incredibly triggering. It is more helpful to catch up about the positive things going on in our lives, to gather around a holiday movie, or to spend time sledding or building snow forts than to discuss the nutritional content of the food or anyone’s appearance. And doesn’t talking about food and weight sound boring compared to the depth and joy those other options can bring?
  1. Ask your loved one what would help. This is huge. Over the last couple years, my mom and I have talked before gatherings in hopes of setting me up for as little stress and anxiety as possible. No matter how uncomfortable or imperfect the conversation seems, you will both feel more at ease once everything is out on the table and you have a plan. In holidays past, because I’ve struggled with food restriction and eating in the presence of other people, my mom agreed that I could skip the part of Thanksgiving and Christmas Days when everyone was sitting at the table for dinner. Some holidays, I’d arrive after the meal or leave beforehand; other years I’d sit at the table with everyone during the meal and drink coffee so that I could enjoy the company but feel more at ease knowing that I had something to do with my idle hands. I could eat on my own schedule and could eat foods that made me comfortable, which may or may not have been what was prepared for the holiday. In my worst years, this was damage control and wasn’t an ideal set-up, but it took some pressure off me and allowed me to do what I needed to do to avoid being triggered further. This may be a fitting situation for someone new to recovery and on a very structured meal plan.

Other ideas include: sitting one-on-one with the person while they eat; helping with portioning if that’s a struggle for them – I have friends from treatment who have asked someone else at the party to make their plate for them so that they would be less likely to restrict or binge; putting away bathroom scales at the home where the gathering will take place; sitting with them or planning a fun group activity for an agreed-upon period of time after a big meal so that they won’t be as tempted to purge; holding them accountable on exercise limits, no matter how much they try to convince you that they’re “just looking for a stress outlet”; eating breakfast and lunch together before a dinner party so that they can stay on track, rather than restricting, and so that they have a healthy model to observe; giving them permission ahead of time to walk away from a triggering conversation and/or trying to help direct the conversation if it becomes clearly overwhelming, then checking on the person later.

Remember, you don’t need to do any of these automatically; don’t try to mind read! Have a conversation about it so that your loved one can voice their needs and you both can create a plan that works for you. Ask questions, encourage them to set boundaries and to know their limits, as you do the same. Give them a voice and use your own, as well.

  1. Plan festive celebrations that aren’t centered around food. This may or may not be possible, but when it is, it is a huge relief for someone with an eating disorder. It’s one less battle to fight in the war of recovery and one extra opportunity to interact with people with enjoy being around without the added stressor of eating.
  1. Remember that your loved one is struggling even when it doesn’t look like it (e.g. as they try to ignore triggering commentary, to finish their meal, to cope with difficult emotions they’re feeling) OR they could be feeling perfectly at ease and don’t need extra support (or what might feel like hovering!). Give them space to speak up for what they do or do not need. Accept where they are; trying to make them fit into your idea of the “perfect” holiday season will not benefit either of you. Instead, providing empathy and support, while setting necessary boundaries, is the best plan for everyone involved.

Communication is the key. Talk openly and honestly to set yourselves up for success and peace of mind.

Happy Holidays!

by Emily Powers

About the Author
Emily received her degree from Illinois Wesleyan University in Psychology and Hispanic Studies. For the last several years, she has worked with elementary school girls in a program that promotes healthy physical, social, and emotional development; additionally she has worked in camps and treatment programs to support children with selective mutism, social anxiety, and developmental delays. She's excited that i understand brings together her passion for mental health and her heart for non-profit work. She's so excited to learn from and get to know the i understand community!

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