Many of our holiday traditions center around food. We begin the season with a Thanksgiving feast and continue throughout the holidays; parties often have elaborate food tables with more food than the guests could possibly consume. And while our focus this time of year is on family and connecting with those we love, we often do it surrounded by food. Many people worry about overeating during this time of year, but for those with eating disorders, the holidays can be especially difficult.
Types of Eating Disorders
There are three main types of eating disorders:
- Anorexia nervosa – those with anorexia often refuse to eat and meticulously count the calories of what they do consume each day. They are extremely anxious about body image and weight and may exercise compulsively to burn off calories of any foods they eat.
- Bulimia nervosa – those with bulimia may eat excessive amounts of food and then purge their bodies of the food through vomiting, diuretics or laxatives. They are often ashamed of their behavior and will purge in secrecy.
- Binge eating disorder – those with this type of eating disorder will go through periods where they eat excessively and feel they can’t stop eating. Binge eaters do not purge their bodies of the food but may still feel ashamed of their behavior and may be obese or overweight.
Many people with an eating disorder have an intense fear of being fat or are preoccupied with their weight and how their body looks. There is a high rate of anxiety disorders in people with eating disorders and research has shown that the anxiety disorder often comes first and that an anxiety disorder may increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.
The Holidays and Eating Disorders
During the holiday season, many people worry about gaining a few pounds but resolve to go back to regular eating habits in January and lose the extra weight. But for those with eating disorders, the holidays are particularly challenging. Those with anorexia may have a hard time hiding their eating disorder, with family watching what they are eating. While other members are filling their plates with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and string beans, the anorexic might eat one slice of turkey and a cracker. Excuses, such as “I’m not really hungry right now, I’ll eat later,” or “I am going to a friends and want to save my appetite for their house,” or “I ate earlier with a friend,” don’t completely ring true and concerned relatives may make the stress even more difficult to deal with.
For those with bulimia or binge eating, holiday meals pose a different type of problem. They will over-eat, filling their plate with everything and not stopping until having several pieces of cake and pie. Binge eaters may eat only a little during dinner, but will later go back, to eat in private – and then eat large amounts of food. Binge eaters will later feel guilty and ashamed of their behavior and the bulimic will find a bathroom to purge their body of all the food they have eaten.
While most with eating disorders want to socialize with friends and family during the holidays, their anxieties and preoccupation with food can prevent them from doing so.
Tips for Managing Eating Disorders During the Holidays
If you have, or are recovering from an eating disorder, the following tips can help you manage through the holidays:
Talk with your therapist about your concerns about the upcoming holidays. Preparing for stressful situations and working on coping strategies beforehand can help you not fall into self-destructive patterns.
Eat healthy meals on a regular basis. During the holidays it is tempting to skip meals to make room for eating later or to make up for what you already ate but this can cause overeating. Instead, stick to moderate eating at regular intervals and remember that most of the foods you eat during the holidays are still around throughout the year, so you don’t have to overindulge.
Keep in mind those people who are supportive. Be sure to know where they are to help you cope with the holidays. Talk to a few supportive friends and relatives before and ask if you can lean on them when struggling with addictive behaviors.
Ask a family member to be your food buddy – they could make up a plate for you or help you in creating a plate with appropriate and healthy portions.
Keep in mind the “reason for the season.” Focus on friends and family rather than on food. Share your goals and dreams and ask about theirs. Let others know about your concerns and fears. Share thoughts on what each person means to you. Find ways to connect with family on an emotional level.
If you are in a support group, continue to attend meetings and participate. Support groups can help you find ways of managing and coping during the extra stress of the holidays and help you feel less alone.
Minimize stress levels. Schedule in time for relaxation as well as holiday events. Leave time each day for stress reducing strategies such as meditation, yoga or taking a walk outdoors. Make sure not to overbook holiday parties and events and give yourself plenty of down time. If you think you will feel stressed or overwhelmed attending a specific event, politely decline – you don’t have to attend every party.
Plan ahead. When visiting friends or family or attending a holiday event, plan out the situation before going to help reduce stress. Think about how you will handle the situation if someone makes a remark about your weight, your body or your eating disorder. Thinking about what to say beforehand can help you feel more in control should the situation arise.
“Eating Disorders,” Revised 2011, Oct, Staff Writer, American Psychological Association
“Twelve Ideas to help People with Eating Disorders Negotiate the Holidays,” 2011, Michael E. Berrett, Ph.D., National Eating Disorders Association