Kenneth L. Weiner, MD, FAED, CEDS
Chief Executive Officer and Founding Partner
Eating Recovery Center
The holiday season can be a particularly challenging time of year for individuals struggling with eating disorders. The food-centric festivities surrounding most holidays can feel overwhelming to patients, regardless of their stage in the recovery process. In response to the anxiety that can accompany heightened exposure to food and gatherings of friends, family and colleagues, treatment professionals often observe an escalation of eating disordered thoughts and behaviors and lapses in recovery during this time of year.
From Halloween through New Year’s Day, gatherings can tend to feel like a constant focus is placed on food, and the food served is often not the healthiest of options. For some, being surrounded by comfort foods and sweets can make eating in moderation a difficult task. For others, the overabundance of food and a focus on sitting down together for family meals can cause anxiety.
The key to navigating holiday eating with confidence lies in planning for challenges that may arise, as well as an emphasis on practicing flexibility and asking for support. Regardless of a patient’s stage in the recovery process, practicing these five strategies can help them protect their recovery during the holidays and avoid potential triggers for eating disorder relapse.
1. Shift the focus from food, meals and counting calories to celebrating and spending time with loved ones. Spending your time evaluating available food to identify the healthiest options keeps you “in your head” and prevents you from meaningfully engaging with the people that care about you most. Accept that food is a part of seasonal get-togethers, and reframe your thoughts to emphasize interaction with family and friends over meals themselves and the types of foods served.
2. Avoid “good food”/”bad food” talk. In general, healthy eating is all about moderation, and this notion is particularly true when it comes to traditional holiday fare. Rather than labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” try to enjoy healthy portion sizes during each course.
3. Avoid “overbooking” your schedule with holiday functions. Shopping for holiday gifts, attending all the holiday functions and hosting your own parties can make for a stressful holiday season. It’s important not to “overbook” yourself during this time and maintain an awareness of your stress level. Trust your instincts and take a break if events and obligations become overwhelming. Don’t worry about disappointing friends and family if you are unable to attend this gift exchange or that dinner—they will understand that protecting your recovery is your number one priority.
4. Surround yourself with people who have healthy relationships with their bodies, food and weight. If possible, bring a trusted family member or friend with you to holiday gatherings, and be sure to keep lines of communication open and honestly discuss your challenges, victories and goals with members of your supportive network. If you’re comfortable doing so, share your thoughts and feelings with trusted individuals. If they understand why the holidays can be a difficult time for you, it will help them provide eating disorder support.
5. Continue working with your outpatient dietitian. Ongoing nutrition counseling with a Registered Dietitian provides powerful guidance, support and education to help patients overcome their fear of food and normalize eating behaviors, particularly during times of stress. If holiday travel keeps you from keeping your regularly-scheduled appointments, consider speaking with your dietitian by phone for a brief check-in or corresponding by email about your experiences and dietary challenges.
Family and friends can be additional champions to support a behavior-free holiday season, and a supportive network is essential to navigating this often hectic time of year. However, despite the best of intentions, loved ones can sometimes inadvertently cause stress and anxiety in their efforts to spend quality time together and carry on their long-standing traditions.
The advice below seeks to help friends and family understand the unique needs of someone recovering from an eating disorder and be a champion for sustainable recovery during the holiday season.
1. Take it easy. As much as you want to re-engage your loved one into all of your holiday traditions, ease into the holiday season by focusing on activities that don’t involve food, such as putting up decorations or sending cards.
2. Be mindful of the needs of your loved one during holiday gatherings. Eating disordered patients are often “people-pleasers,” and will hide their anxiety in an effort to meet the emotional needs of friends and family. If your friend or family member doesn’t feel as though they can attend an event, support them in this decision even if you feel disappointed. If your loved one is willing and able to attend a holiday gathering, support them if they need to “escape” for some fresh air to keep their emotions in check, and be willing to leaving early if the festivities begin to feel overwhelming. It may be helpful to agree on a signal or sign that your loved one can use when he or she needs your help to change the subject during a conversation with a nosy neighbor or a tipsy relative, or when they need to take a moment away to regroup.
3. Plan ahead. Provide as much information as possible to your friend or loved one regarding holiday activities—where, when, what types of food will be available and whether alcohol will be served. Information and preparation can help patients in recovery plan ahead, practice flexibility and avoid situations that might trigger a relapse.
4. Consider scheduling family therapy sessions when family members are together. Family relationships can play an important role in eating disorders recovery. Ask your loved one if it would be appropriate to invite relevant family members to participate in therapy sessions when they are in town for the holidays. Families with members scattered across the country can make use of holiday vacations spent together to address important issues, or use therapy sessions to learn how to help the entire family navigate the holidays while supporting your recovery.
5. Make your loved one’s recovery a priority. Altering holiday traditions in the short-term can significantly impact your family member or friend’s wellbeing in the long-term. Changing traditions or creating new traditions to meet the needs of your loved one in recovery can feel disappointing and scary, but remind yourself that eating disorders recovery is fragile and that you have the power to help protect it.