How to Cope With An Eating Disorder at Christmas
The holidays are an incredibly difficult time for those with eating disorders or disordered eating. Food plays a huge role in our holiday celebrations, and why shouldn't it!? Food can be joyous, exciting, celebratory, and something that brings people together.
But when you're deep in disordered eating, Christmas can feel so isolating and one of the worst days of the year. I remember one Christmas in one of the lowest points of disordered eating, the day felt absolutely awful. Waking up in the morning and opening presents (a time that's always been amazing!) I was dreading having to eat with my family. I was so scared of the calories in my Christmas dinner. My parents adding extra calories to our meal. The endless supply of chocolate and cheese.
Ease Nutrition Therapy aims to be as inclusive as possible. So I want to acknowledge that this article is based on my experience growing up in a space that celebrates Christmas. If you don't celebrate Christmas, I hope you will still find this article helpful.
I don't know specifically about how you spend the holidays, but I want you to know you're not alone. In fact, holidays are the toughest time for people with mental health conditions - including eating disorders. While eating disorders are not just "a thing with food" - the holidays can bring emotions to the surface. The holidays are especially difficult because:
They bring together families - people with touch relationships with their families may find themselves triggered
They involve so much food. It feels like there's a whole month of build up to just one meal- talk about expectations and pressure!
There is a big abundance of food, that people don't tend to experience outwit the holidays.
It's a high stress time of year. You're trying to meet work deadlines, visit all your family, finish exams at university, buy gifts after work. It is a lot.
1. Eat regularly
My first tip is a big of a boring one. But it's incredibly important.
It feels so tempting to save space for Christmas dinner. It's actually really normalised. I hear a lot of people say they are going to eat small dinners because they've got a big meal coming up. This might even be 3-4 days away! But the thing is, these people don't think that's weird. They think it makes sense.
But I'm here to let you know that your body needs enough food every single day. And "enough food" doesn't mean just getting by. It means adequately nourishing your body with foods you enjoy. And finding pleasure in food!
We pump ourselves up for the "feast." You might want to minimise the amount of calories you eat on Christmas day, or in the lead up to Christmas. But think about when you've done this in the past... Did it feel good in your body? Or did you feel grumpy, tired, and like you couldn't really function?
Restricting food always eventually leads to a binge or over eating. It's literally what the body is designed to do. You can't fight the need for food.
I know you don't want to feel guilty or filled with shame. You want to enjoy Christmas day - it's something you look forward to all year. I encourage you to eat every 3-4 hours on Christmas day, or even more often is ok too. But make sure not to skip breakfast or snacks. I know it's tempting and it's the normal thing to do. But regular eating is so important to nourish your body and eating disorder recovery.
2. Make time for you
The holidays are filled with thinking about other people. You need to think about what gifts to buy people, what others have planned, what others need from you. But a key to taking care of yourself is making time for yourself. This is a big theme in eating disorder recovery. If you don't feel grounded and like your taking care of yourself, things will feel so overwhelming.
You might cosy up in bed or on the sofa and read a book. You might take a stroll in the woods, the beach, or in the countryside. Personally I love walking in the deserted streets on Christmas day that are usually packed. You might wake up before everyone else and eat breakfast. Some other ideas include:
Meditation and journaling
Connecting with friends and family, in person or over Zoom
Watching a movie
Trying a new hobby, like candle making, bath bomb making, or pottery
Going to the theatre or a show
Taking a nap
3. Plan ahead
When things are uncertain, having a plan is really helpful. If you know there might be sticky situations, you can be better prepared. If you know that some family members can poke at old wounds, come up with ways to respond to them. This might also include an exist strategy.
Some examples of how to deal with triggering food and body talk are:
Take yourself out of the room. Give yourself permission to go outside for some fresh air. Or to take a few breaths in the bathroom, or even to the kitchen to fill your drink.
Have a person you can tell when it's too much. This might be your partner, parent, or friend. You can let them know when things are feeling too tough, and they can support you.
You might divert diet talk by having some phrases up your sleeve. These might include: "I'm happy with how I'm eating" or "I'm fine with my body, I would rather not talk about it" or "I hate chatting about dieting, let's talk about you. How's your job/holiday/cat/child?"
4. Don't forget that food is pleasure
Food is so much more than nutrients - it's also joy. Barring yourself from foods isn't in line with true recovery. The holidays are a time to connect with yourself and your satisfaction levels. Food can be a great connection aid to other people too. Pleasure and satisfaction have been robbed from you by your eating disorder, so Christmas is a perfect time to try to practice it.
5. Remind yourself that guilt is not an ingredient