How to Handle Eating Disorders Around the Holidays

mom and daughter at the holiday table

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Although the holidays are often filled with excitement and fun activities, they also can be fraught with stress for someone recovering from an eating disorder. As they work to stay on track with their recovery, they can be challenged by the fact that the holiday season often revolves around food-focused activities.

Jillian Lampert, PhD, chief strategy officer of Veritas Collaborative and The Emily Program, explains that irregular schedules, changes to routine, social events, and an emphasis on food can all lead to an excess of stress within individuals experiencing an eating disorder.

If you or a loved one are recovering from an eating disorder, it is important to acknowledge the unique struggles of the holiday season while also having a plan in place. To help you navigate this time of year, we have put together some expert advice with actionable tips. Read on to learn what steps you can take to make this holiday season a little less stressful.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Characterized by a persistent disturbance in eating behaviors, eating disorders are conditions that often include upsetting thoughts and emotions. They also can impact a person's physical, psychological, and social functions.

"Eating disorders are very complex, serious psychiatric illnesses," says Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, MD, a psychiatrist as well as co-founder, CEO, and chief medical officer at WithinHealth. "They can have many causes, with biological, psychological, social, and cultural risk factors. And they can have many mental and physical complications. But they are also very treatable."

Eating disorders are prevalent around the world and can impact anyone. In fact, experts estimate that as many as 30 million people in the U.S. will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

"The most commonly recognized eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder (BED)," says Dr. Oliver-Pyatt. "But there are others that people may not be aware of, along with behaviors that people may not realize are actually signs and symptoms of disordered eating." 

Lesser known eating disorders include avoidant restrictive eating disorder (or ARFID)—which is sometimes called picky eating and involves not eating enough food to adequately nourish the body, usually due to sensory aversions or anxiety about certain foods, explains Dr. Oliver-Pyatt. There also is orthorexia—which is an obsession with “healthy” food and eating habits.

"Many people experience some sort of disordered eating throughout their lifetime," says Eileen Anderson, EdD, associate professor of bioethics and director of education, bioethics and medical humanities, School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve. "Girls and women experience higher rates of disordered eating, but no group is free [from risk]."

Why the Holidays Can Be Challenging for People With Eating Disorders

The holiday season can be a perfect snowstorm of stress, says Dr. Oliver-Pyatt. With overflowing schedules, an influx of social events, and a heightened focus on food, it is not surprising that this time of year can be particularly challenging for people recovering from eating disorders.

"There is such a spotlight on the holidays and having them be 'fun' and 'Instagram-worthy' that it only makes the holidays more stressful," explains Laura Cohen, a CCI-certified eating disorder recovery coach and family mentor for Equip Health. "If a person is early in recovery, it is possible that family members are unaware of the eating disorder, and this can make gatherings potentially triggering."

Laura Cohen, Mentor and Coach

There is such a spotlight on the holidays and having them be 'fun' and 'Instagram-worthy' that it only makes the holidays more stressful.

— Laura Cohen, Mentor and Coach

The holiday season also can be challenging because there is so much "diet talk" from family, friends, or the media, says Jessica Jaeger, MS, RD, a registered dietitian, adjunct professor at Hofstra University, and an affiliate of Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative. For instance, hearing family or friends talk about their New Year's weight loss plans can be particularly triggering.

Dr. Oliver-Pyatt offers some more examples of that harmful diet talk. "Like: 'Oh, I’m being so bad. I’m going to pay for this tomorrow. I’ll have to work it all off with extra time at the gym,'" she describes. "Or, 'I didn’t eat all day, so I could eat tonight.' Comments like these are harmful to those who have eating disorders. Really, they’re harmful to everyone, as they put a value judgment on food and unrealistic emphasis on health as a personal responsibility and moral obligation."

People recovering from eating disorders also may worry about how they will handle social situations and what people will say. They also may be worried about what they’re going to eat, what to wear, and what people may think about what they’re eating.

"If the person’s weight has shifted, they may fear that this will be noticed or critiqued by family members," adds Jaeger. "In later stages of recovery, people can often bring themselves to eat in a way that appears 'normal' or not disordered, but then suffer from intense feelings of guilt and remorse as a result of challenging the eating disorder."

How to Help a Family Member With an Eating Disorder

There are a number things you can do to support your child or another family member with an eating disorder during the holidays. The key is to be supportive, compassionate, and meet them where they are at, rather than placing expectations on them.

"I encourage caregivers to protect their loved ones during the holidays from potentially triggering situations—whatever that may look like for them," says Cohen. "Sometimes this means not attending the big family function that takes place over Christmas, the annual Chanukah party, or the big New Year's Eve party. I remind my families that this is for 'now' and not 'forever.'"

Here are some additional things you can do to a support a child or other family member who is recovering from an eating disorder.

Be a Support System

There is no doubt that the holiday season has the potential to be triggering for people with eating disorders, but you can alleviate some of this stress by simply being there for them. Listen when they need someone to talk to and remind them that you care deeply for them, suggests Dr. Oliver-Pyatt.

"Always let your loved one know that you are there to support to them and if they need a time out or an excuse to leave, you will fully back them up," adds Cohen.

Use Wise Words

Too many times, people ask if someone has lost weight or mention something else about their appearance. Unfortunately, these types of comments can be harmful—even if you mean it as a compliment. In fact, assuming that thin is the ideal helps to perpetuate eating disorders, especially if you unintentionally glamorize thinness and demonize fatness.

"Make zero comments about a person's body, appearance, food, eating, fitness, or eating rituals," suggests Cohen. "And if they have been in treatment—particularly residential—do not ask any questions. Instead, say that 'it is so nice to see you.'"

If you're looking for a conversation starter, try asking what TV shows they've seen lately, or what books they've read. "Holidays are not about appearances or weight," says Dr. Lampert. "They are about connection and love and joy. Focus on gratitude, not appearance."

Educate Other Family Members and Friends

Educating friends and families about what types of conversations or comments can be triggering for your loved one is vital to protect their recovery, says Cohen.

"It is not unusual to have a family member that does not get it and ends up making some type of triggering comment," she says. "It is best to 'cope ahead' (a great dialectical behavior therapy skill)."

For example, if you know your great aunt is notorious for discussing how “all the food that goes into her lips will land on her hips," Cohen says you may want to prepare either by talking to your child ahead of time, and/or addressing it with your great aunt before you see her.

Provide Breaks and Create New Traditions

When it comes to the holiday season, breaks are important for everyone. For this reason, you may want to consider spending time doing something that does not involve food.

"Offer the person struggling with the eating disorder a break; give them the space they need to center themselves and regroup," suggests Dr. Lampert. "Offer to go for a stroll to look at Christmas lights, the sunset, snowfall, whatever is compelling. Be with them and remind them they are not alone and not being judged by you."

You also may want to create new traditions that do not revolve around food. For instance, you could schedule a game night, a movie night, a craft day, or even take a trip to a nearby town or city for a little sightseeing. "Pick something your family may enjoy that has nothing to do with food," says Cohen.

Encourage Counseling Support

Someone battling an eating disorder during the holidays may need to increase their sessions with their counselor or therapist—if seeing one—to help make a holiday plan, says Cohen. Having a trusted person to help them manage triggers and avoid reverting to old coping strategies and behavior patterns can be helpful.

"Hiring an eating disorder recovery coach to help you stay accountable is another option," says Cohen. If you have questions about how to find one for your child, be sure to reach out to their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

What to Do If the Holidays Trigger Your Own Eating Disorder

If you are recovering from an eating disorder and are wondering how to navigate the holiday season with your family, offer yourself compassion, suggest Jaeger. Self compassion inherently challenges the eating disorder, while shame strengthens it. You also could explore new coping strategies.

"Part of the work in recovery is gathering other skills so the person no longer has to rely on the eating disorder," says Jaeger. "Therapy, journaling, yoga, breath work, art, and talking to a loved one are often practices I incorporate with clients. From a nutrition perspective, do your best to maintain regular eating patterns as much as possible."

Here are some additional ways to minimize triggers during the holidays.

Plan Ahead

Having a better understanding of the day’s events and timing allows you to plan accordingly, especially in regard to food, says Jaeger. For instance, do not skip meals prior to events or engage in restrictive eating.

"This helps ensure that people do not end up feeling extremely hungry, and then engaging in further restriction or eating past fullness in a way that feels out of control once they are at the event," she says.

You also can choose a "safe person" to touch base with at an event, such as a spouse, sibling, or friend, suggests Anderson. And remember, it is okay to step away to collect yourself.

"Some people find it useful to bring a meaningful item in a pocket or handbag that reminds them of who they are outside of a triggering situation," she says. "It is also a good idea to monitor yourself during an event; if you feel anxiety rising, try to use calming techniques or change the micro-situation to deescalate before you have a problem."

Get Support

With an eating disorder, it can be tempting to try to manage the situation on your own. But it is important to have a solid support system as well as continue with your treatment and counseling. You also can utilize online helplines or resources if you require support in the moment, or have a friend or family member on hand to take a walk with you if you need it.

"Don’t let the eating disorder make the holiday an excuse to not seek support for recovery," says Dr. Lampert. "Ask someone to eat with you, sit with you—whatever it is that is difficult. Ask for someone to just be with you while you do the hard work you need to do."

You also can let your family know what is helpful and what isn't. Most people want to support you, but may not be sure what to do or say.

"Keep in mind that unhelpful comments are likely due to someone's exposure to relentless diet culture, and are not necessarily reflective of how much they care about you," says Dr. Lampert. 

Set Boundaries

It also a good idea to set clear boundaries—especially if potentially triggering topics come up in conversations like diet talk, labeling foods "good" and "bad," or discussing weight, appearance, or exercise.

"You can script what you might want to say if any of these topics comes up," suggests Dr. Oliver-Pyatt. "And practice role playing with your support people, so you can speak up for yourself."

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

The holidays can be stressful—particularly if you, your child, or a family member is struggling with an eating disorder. But, there are things you can do to make it less triggering. The key is to put a plan in place and set boundaries with people who may not understand the intricacies of eating disorders.

It is also okay to decline invitations or cut visits short if they are particularly challenging for you. Give yourself or your loved one the gift of compassion. Also, remember that it is okay if things do not go perfectly. The important thing is that you or family member are still doing the work—even though things may not always go as planned.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.