By: Jennifer Lombardi, MFT
Executive Director, Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program
When we think of the holidays, our thoughts often go to family, friends, gift-giving, shopping and, yes, food. For many, celebrating the season while sharing food with loved ones is part of our collective culture, and is something we look forward to. But for individuals struggling with an eating disorder, the holidays can often be one of the most distressing times of year.
Eating disorders are complex and pervasive. In the United States, an estimated 10 million girls and women and one million boys and men struggle with an eating disorder. Although the average age of onset is between 14 to 16 years old, there is no age, gender or cultural limit to who struggles with these illnesses or for how long. Women and men in their thirties, forties and beyond struggle with anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS and binge eating disorder. With biological, psychological and social underpinnings, eating disorders are the deadliest mental illnesses. An estimated 10 percent of individuals struggling will die from the illness, often from medical complications stemming from starvation or purging behaviors.
During the holiday season, it may be important to make exceptions to family traditions to support eating disorders recovery. Several key strategies for navigating the holidays include:
1. Set up realistic expectations. This may be the year to forgo a huge family gathering in favor of something smaller and more intimate. Sitting at a dinner table surrounded by 50 people can be overwhelming for someone who is in treatment or working to sustain recovery after discharge from treatment. There will be future holidays where returning to tradition makes sense, so be open to altering plans for this year if needed.
2. Use your support system. Talk openly about the challenges associated with holiday meals. Consider an activity or outing after a meal. This healthy distraction can aid in decreasing anxiety and distress.
3. Don’t skip meals. Some people tend to skip meals during the day in order to “save up” for the big holiday meal. Not only is this approach unhealthy, it sets up a situation where the anticipation of the meal ultimately causes more distress. For family members and friends, consider what you may be modeling to your loved one who is struggling and ditch the “fasting for the final meal” mentality.
4. Create a code. At large gatherings of family and friends, chances are that someone will, at some point, make a disparaging comment about weight and/or food. Predict it. Write down who will likely say what, and when it will probably occur. Predicting these comments can help take the power and impact out of them. Also, it can be helpful to discuss a covert signal with a family member or friend, such as a wink or tapping your fingers on the table, when such comments are made. It’s a silent acknowledgement between you and your loved one that a triggering comment was just made, which can decrease feelings of being alone.
5. See the big picture. Food is just one aspect of the holiday season. Consider doing volunteer work or creating special time with friends and family away from the dinner table. While meals are a traditional and loving component of the holiday season, be sure to incorporate the “spirit of giving” in ways that are emotionally rewarding. Isolating often goes hand-in-hand with an eating disorder. Break this cycle by creating traditions that speak to your heart.