Holiday gatherings can be a difficult time for anyone who is recovering or recovered from an eating disorder.
As someone who lived with an eating disorder for five years and spent an additional 2 years recovering, I can attest to this fact. For those who are recovering, there are things you can do to help get you through. Similarly, if you are hosting a holiday gathering and you know (or even don’t know) there will be friends or loved ones in attendance who are overcoming eating disorders, there are things you can do to make your gathering recovery-friendly.
1. Don’t assume nobody is recovering from an eating disorder
First and foremost, it is important to never assume that nobody around is recovering from (or actively struggling with) an eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), research shows that 3-9 out of every 1,000 young women and 1-3 out of every 1,000 young men struggle with anorexia alone. Additionally, Binge Eating Disorder was found to be three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined.
Needless to say, we don’t know what is going on beneath the surface.
Though you may assume nobody attending your gathering suffers from an eating disorder, you may not be able to know this as a fact, which is why it’s important to take all the tips mentioned in this article into consideration.
2. Keep the focus away from the food
It’s not always easy to understand if you haven’t dealt with an eating disorder or disordered eating yourself, but to someone recovering from an eating disorder, food brings forth a lot of anxiety. And this includes simply talking about food, not just the presence of food.
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Whether it’s Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas dinner, we put a lot of focus on food during the holidays. Conversations revolve around what will be eaten, how much will be eaten, and (often) how “guilty” or “bad” we are for what we have eaten (which is kind of strange, if you really think about it).
The truth is, though, that the holidays aren’t about the food; they are about being together.
At your gathering, try to keep this in mind and in focus — whether it’s through conversation, planned activities, or even the amount of time you allocate to eating.
Gathering around the table is a social activity in and of itself, and there is nothing wrong with this. However, it’s important to remember that the point of focus should be who is around the table, not what’s on it.
Whatever you do, avoid any comments that glorify restrictive, excessive, or binge eating. These are all disordered eating behaviours and can be triggering for anyone recovering from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or other forms of eating disorders.
3. Avoid ‘body comments’
One of the most difficult challenges to face when recovering from an eating disorder are body-related comments. Even if you think the comments are harmless or in-line with what may be considered a compliment; the truth is that even compliments can be upsetting or triggering.
As an example, when I was struggling with anorexia, I lost a great deal of weight. I received compliments constantly from others on how good I looked. Some even went as far to ask me about my diet/exercise routine and how I’d managed to get so “healthy.” On the surface, these comments seem harmless (though I personally feel we shouldn’t be commenting on anybody’s weight or size). However, underneath, I knew the answer to their inquiries: I was very sick and desperately unhappy.
Comments like these, at their best, were upsetting and anxiety-provoking, and at their worst, triggered my mind and endorsed the outcomes of my disordered behaviours.
Body comments not directed towards me had similarly harmful outcomes. Overhearing comments about other people’s bodies — how much they hated or loved them — or weight — how much they’d lost or hoped to lose — brought on its own anxiety and triggers. Even though the people may not have been talking about me, it was still difficult to not take the conversation and internalize it.
If someone is complaining about the size or shape of their body, it justified my own dissatisfaction and self-bullying. If someone was being praised for their weight-loss efforts, I saw my behaviours as being similarly commendable. And, if someone was bemoaning their own weight gain (or being ridiculed by others for it), it made me feel equally insecure about my gained recovery weight.
4. Make the meal self-serve
When recovering from an eating disorder, nothing can be quite as stressful as being handed a plate of food you are expected to eat. A huge component of eating disorders is control, and sensing any lack of control can make recovery incredibly difficult.
Allowing everyone to serve up their own plates will prevent any anxiety and will offer those in recovery a chance to choose their meal based on their own cravings and desires.
Though in recovery we are slowly learning to give up this desire for control, this must be done in a gradual and intentional way. Being handed a plate of food you have not chosen and being expected (through verbal direction or social obligation) to eat it, can be terrifying and even harmful. (This excludes, of course, the context of a specific recovery treatment plan.)
5. Don’t comment on portion size or leftovers
Commenting on portions, encouraging seconds, or questioning uneaten food should be avoided.
If someone is in recovery, that means they are doing their best to make choices about what and how much they eat based on their own capacity.
Pressuring them to eat more (or less) or questioning their portion sizes will only stir up more anxiety and question their ability to trust themselves and their eating intuition.
If you notice a loved one isn’t eating much or isn’t eating anything at all, that does not give reason to comment. It is actually common for someone in recovery to have their main meal before attending a holiday event; it allows them to ensure they are able to eat in a more relaxed context. I did this often.
Similarly, if someone appears to be eating excessively, this also doesn’t warrant a comment.
The truth is, even if the choices someone in recovery makes during a meal aren’t inline with their own recovery, confronting them about it at a social gathering is not the answer. Subtle remarks, “harmless” questions, or passive aggressive comments will do more harm than good.
6. Avoid topics related to dieting, weight loss, and nutritional restrictions
Diet and weight loss talk is so ingrained in our culture, that I believe people don’t even notice when they are doing it. However, these topics — in addition to being incredibly boring and overplayed — can be incredibly harmful to anyone recovering from an eating disorder.
Similar to body comments, weight or diet comments can be anxiety-provoking and even triggering.
This includes talks about nutritional restrictions (think “going dairy free” “avoiding gluten” etc.) and food-fear talk (“dairy is so harmful” “gluten is the devil” “sugar will kill us all”).
In recovery, we often learn about intuitive or mindful eating. The main principals for this approach are to: 1. Eat when you are hungry 2. Eat whatever your body craves (nothing off limits) 3. Stop when you are full — Any form of diet or nutritional-restriction talk goes directly against recovery’s approach and can trigger someone in recovery back into the eating disorder mindset.
7. Don’t single anyone in recovery out
While you may mean well, avoid singling out anyone who you know is in recovery. Do what you can to make the event as comfortable and welcoming as possible for them, yes, but avoid singling them out or making them feel as though you are making special accommodations for their circumstances.
On the same note, don’t assume that everyone else in attendance knows they are in recovery just because you do.
There are ways to show your care about and support them without explicitly discussing someone’s recovery. Save these conversations for a time that isn’t so stressful (i.e. not during a large gathering) and when others aren’t around.
Lastly, show that you care and are available (and even say it)
Community and support is so important for someone who is struggling with any mental health issue, including any form of eating disorder. While it’s important to not publicly single anyone out (as mentioned in #7), showing that you care and are available for support, is so important. Whether you express it directly (in private), or simply make yourself available by showing an interest in their lives and including them in conversation (again, not related to their recovery) it will go a long way to show that you care and are there for them.
Depending on the depth of your relationship, you can even give them a call or send a text or email the day after the event, letting them know how much you enjoyed them coming and that you care about them and are always available.
Don’t stress out too much. Follow these steps, do the best you can, and you will be well on your way to hosting a holiday gathering that will be enjoyable for all in attendance — even those who are in recovery from an eating disorder!
PS: Thanks for taking the time to read this article — you are already showing how much you care by simply doing your research!
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