During the holiday season, more than 85% of Americans are known to overeat (Perrigo, 2018). The emphasis on food and food–centered celebrations can make the holidays even more difficult for people with eating disorders and/or in recovery. For instance, for individuals with eating disorders, it can be stressful to know that others will see what they eat and how much food they consume. Additionally, the normalization of overeating during the holidays, especially at Thanksgiving can feel stressful for those with restrictive eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and for those who experience recurrent episodes of binge eating. This stress could lead to increased feelings of guilt and shame around eating behaviors or worsening disordered eating behaviors following the holiday meal. Given that 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime (Deloitte Access Economics, 2020), it is important to develop a plan to help reduce stress and maintain recovery during the holidays.
Here are some tips and strategies that can help you or someone you know manage disordered eating during the holidays. These strategies are intended to help those with eating disorders prioritize their needs, enjoy the holidays, and take care of themselves, rather than avoid food-centered celebrations. Additionally, for those interacting with someone impacted by an eating disorder, these tips can help create safer and more supportive celebrations for everyone.
If you are affected by an eating disorder:
- Plan ahead: Maintain your regular eating schedule as much as possible and talk to your therapist/dietician about your feelings surrounding the holiday season.
- Engage in non-food centered activities: Holiday meals do not have to be the entire celebration. Engage in other activities that bring people together such as watching family movies, going pumpkin picking, and discussing things you are thankful for.
- Prepare your support system: Identify people that you feel safe with and let them know how they can support you. For instance, they can help steer the table away from diet talk and check in with you privately throughout the day.
- Pay attention to your internal cues about eating: If you feel hungry, you can get another serving or have a snack before the meal. If you are feeling full, allow yourself to leave some food on your plate.
- Keep appointments: Recovery does not pause for the holiday season. While it can be tempting to cancel appointments due to added holiday stress, it is important to maintain engagement with your treatment team during this season, just like any other season.
- Monitor social media use: Messages about body image, eating, and diet talk on social media during the holidays can be difficult to hear. You can filter your social media feed by unfollowing negative profiles and engaging with positive and supportive messaging.
If someone at your table is affected by an eating disorder:
- Display intuitive eating: Demonstrate healthy eating by listening to your body, allowing yourself to eat when you feel hungry throughout the day and stop when you begin to feel full.
- Avoid appearance and weight comments: There are many other wonderful things about the people you love that do not revolve around how they look or how they have physically changed since the last time you saw them. Highlight something else you love about them!
- Plan non-food centered activities: Schedule activities without food as the focus to bring people together in different ways.
- Avoid negative body talk: Diet and negative body talk come up very frequently during the holidays. Recenter the conversation away from topics such as diets, calories, weight loss, and fasting.
- Show how much you care! Remind your loved ones how grateful you are to have them in your life and how happy you are to spend time with them during the holidays.
Deloitte Access Economics. (2020). The Social and Economic Cost of Eating Disorders in the United States of America: A Report for the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders and the Academy for Eating Disorders. Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/striped/report-economic-costs-of-eating-disorders/.
Perrigo. (2018). Season of joy? actually, season of stress for 88 percent of Americans. Season of Joy? Actually, Season of Stress for 88 Percent of Americans. Available at: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/season-of-joy-actually-season-of-stress-for-88-percent-of-americans-300758622.html
By Katie Olson
Katie is a second-year graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work, and this is her first year working in the Living F.R.E.E. Lab.