Coping at Christmas with an Eating Disorder
Co-written by Talia Cecchele & Andrea Clares
Christmas can be a difficult and stressful time to manage for many people living with an eating disorder (ED) or disordered eating, as well as their carers. After going through what has already been a tough year, adding further emotional distress about how to manage eating and behaviours over the holiday period can cause a lot of anxiety.
We’ve included the most common challenges faced during this time with practical and useful strategies to help you navigate the next few weeks.
Fear of overeating or binge eating
The holiday season is well known for being a time to overindulge with family and friends at social events. Now remember, occasional over-eating is normal however it can be extremely distressing if you are stuck in an all-or-nothing mindset. To help reduce overeating or binge eating and manage distressing thoughts here’s what can help:
Ditch the all-or-nothing mindset. This includes labeling foods as “good” and bad” or “clean” and “treat.” Practice reframing your thoughts e.g. bread is bad to bread is a rich source of carbohydrates and gives my body energy
Respect your fullness by saying “no, thank you” - you do not need to accept more food than you want in order to please family or friends. Be strong and kindly decline (even if it is a few times) if you get offered food you don’t want. If you don’t want to waste food, pack it away in a food container and take it home.
Try saying this:
No, thank you, I have eaten enough and I am feeling full
No, thank you, but I will pack some away to take home
If you do overeat or binge, do not try to compensate by skipping meals, restricting, “being good tomorrow” or burning off calories through exercise - this can increase overeating or binge eating again. We recommend to continue having regular meals and snacks (even something small if you aren’t hungry) as this helps to regulate your blood sugar levels, appetite and to reduce cravings
If you do over eat or binge, instead of punishing yourself afterwards, do something nice. You are worthy of this. Buy yourself some flowers, cosy up by the fire with a hot drink, put a face mask on or dance to some tunes.
Some useful things to repeat to yourself:
I am not a bad person for binging, I approve of myself and it will be okay
Overeating is normal, I trust my body to digest this food
Eating past the level of physical hunger is normal, food is so much more than fuel - which means I will sometimes eat food I like just for pleasure and flavour, and that’s okay
I notice that I am full, I can always eat more later
If you haven't read it yet, check out the blog on Overcoming Emotional Eating.
Uncertainty about the food being served
Food is so much more than fuel. Food has a strong emotional component attached to it and is associated with making joyful connections with people, traditions and creating memories. It can be distressing not knowing what is being served or being served something you know is a challenging food for you. Here’s what can help:
Use the next couple of weeks to challenge fear foods that may be served at Christmas in a graded approach. For example if your family orders pizza you could grade up by making it at home first using a safe base (e.g. wholegrain bread or wrap), then moving to a premade base, then having someone make it for you, then a frozen pizza and then takeaway pizza.
Planning in advance is the most helpful strategy. Call your family ahead of time to ask what will be served and offer to make a dish to bring which is safe for you. Create a meal plan for the week of Christmas so that you know exactly what meals and snacks you will be eating and who with. We suggest also scheduling in activities to do after each meal as a distraction to help with anxiety
In some situations, bringing your own pre-prepared meal or eating before/after an event can be helpful. Talk to your loved ones about what will work best for you.
Different eating routine
It’s important to recognise and accept that during Christmas, our schedules will (for a few days) slightly differ from our usual routine, especially when it comes to mealtimes. Eating away from home (e.g. buffets, attending family events) can result in eating at different times and different types of meals.
If your are planning to attend a "brunch" make sure to have a small snack at "breakfast" and then eat your main meal at "morning snack" time. Same goes for a late lunch (just swap the meal and snack around)
Make a plan ahead of time so that you know what you will be eating and when, including if you need to bring your own snacks or meal
Have someone you trust help you portion your plate. If you are attending a buffet and the thought of having to serve your own food scares and overwhelms you, it may be helpful to ask someone to portion the meal.
Reduced physical activity
During a time with numerous events to attend to and family to visit, it’s very likely that our schedules will look a bit different than usual and so it may be difficult to fit in our regular level of physical activity. It's okay! It is normal for physical activity levels to fluctuate, just like our dietary intake. Getting outside and moving our bodies has many benefits for our mental health, but it is important to prioritise self care, relationships and this special time with friends and family too.
Try to get outside every day, even for a 10 minute walk - perhaps, you could suggest going for a walk with your family after a meal. This can also help you change up the scenery from the table and clear up your mind from any negative thoughts.
Move your body for enjoyment - post meal boogie to Abba songs anyone?
Unfollow accounts which spread a negative message such as you need to run x number of minutes to burn off a mince pie or ones that tell you to shred lockdown or Christmas weight
Unsolicited comments from family and friends
Conversation around diets, weight loss and food can seem impossible to escape at this time of year. If you are living with an eating disorder, this might mean additional pressure when family comment on your weight and the food you are eating. This can be triggering and fuel disordered eating thoughts and negative behaviours. To help you deal with unsolicited opinions we suggest to try the following:
Do not feed into diet talk - become a pro at changing the direction of conversation, ask about any plans they may have for the new year, how they’ve been this year or introduce any other non-food related topic
Have a list of helpful phrases to use when other people comment or when the ED voice creeps up - write them in your phone so that you can turn to them whenever you come across any unpleasant comments or unhelpful thoughts. We’ve included some examples below.
Ask your loved ones to help you by speaking to other family members in advance about what your challenges are and to refrain from commenting on your body or food intake
The food I choose to eat do not define my self-worth
I am so much more than how I look
My body deserves to be respected and cared for by attending to its basic needs, which includes eating a variety of foods I like
My body deserves to be treated with kindness and compassion
I choose to take care of myself, my body and my mind
I am thankful for all that my body can do and the things it gets me to see and experience
Constantly being around food and people
Being surrounded by people who may not know that you have an eating disorder, are dieting themselves or just like to talk about weight and food can be triggering. Here’s what you can do:
Finding joyful and non-destructive distractions - watching a feel-good movie or TV Show, writing some Christmas cards to friends, playing a board game with your family, singing Christmas carols
Reach out for help and advice whenever you need to, whether its a friend you can trust, a family member, your therapist or a helpline such as Beat UK
Have in place self-care tools to help you manage difficult emotions and check in with yourself - taking time out to be just with yourself can help you relax and soothe your emotions. You can try guided meditation, reading a book, going for a walk while listening to your favorite playlist, or taking a relaxing bath
If you know that being at an event for a long time will be uncomfortable and make you engage in unhealthy behaviours, arrange to be there for a shorter period or ensure that someone who you trust is with you
New Year's Resolutions
This is the last thing you want to be reminded of, yet we all will inevitably come across the pressure of needing to compensate for the extra calories consumed or lack of physical activity during the holiday period. Triggering diet messages can be highly detrimental for anyone with a disordered relationship with food, so here are a few things to remember:
Remind yourself that recovering from your ED or disordered eating is the priority
Remind yourself that dieting has never and will never be the solution - have a list with the reasons why you want to move away from diet culture and the damaging effects that it has had on the different aspects of your life
Set some realistic and non-weight focused goals. You can find examples here.
This year, instead of being influenced by family and friends, we encourage you to focus on your goals and activities that make you feel safe and remember:
Every uncomfortable feeling or situation that you may experience is totally valid and deserving of help and support
We wish you a safe and nourishing holiday period with your loved ones.
Team TCN x
Talia is a registered dietitian working in private practice and as an eating disorder specialist dietitian in London's leading private mental health hospital. As a freelance dietitian, Talia not only offers 1:1 consultations but can present at your workplace, create recipes or articles or host a cooking demonstration. To enquire please fill out a contact form.