Stress-free Eating during the Holidays

The holidays are about family, friends, and community.  The holidays aren’t really about the food, right?

But they kind of are, aren’t they?  After all, food is everywhere during this season and often it is food that we don’t typically eat during other times of the year and we look forward to it.  Very often, for people who have disordered eating, the mental and emotional toll navigating food takes makes it nearly impossible to enjoy the celebration. 

And just like the holidays are kind of about the food and kind of not, so are eating disorders.  Eating disorders are a mental illness that we are taught are about anxiety, perfectionism, and control, abandonment, and the need to conform.  This is true.  What is also true is that eating disorders are also about food.  We don’t treat eating disorders by focusing solely on the emotional disturbance.  Food has to be addressed.  Simply knowing why a person has an eating disorder doesn’t fix it.


How do we enjoy the season of eating when eating is what causes us the most distress?

At the very center of eating disorder recovery is the belief that you are worthy of good care and nourishment.  So the first strategy in managing your eating disorder during the holidays is to incorporate as much self-care as you can fit in, even before the first pumpkin is set out.  Self-care looks different for everyone.  What feels nourishing and good to me, may not for you, so explore things that make you feel safe and cared for, and do those things each day.  Do more of them during the holidays if you need to.  Write down a list of things that make you feel cared for and carry it with you.  Include things you can do at home and when you are out, so you can be there for yourself whenever you need to. Step outside and fill your lungs with the crisp air for a time out.  Carry something that reminds you of why you are in recovery.  Create a comfortable space in your home to retreat to when the day ends.  Have time with friends after the family gathering.  Remind yourself that taking good care of yourself is not selfish.  It is your right.

If you are using a meal plan, address this with your dietician.  Learn ways to incorporate the exchanges with the food that you are anticipating to be there so you are not caught off guard.  Often, for people with an eating disorder, the abundance of choices can be overwhelming and they shut down, unable to choose anything to eat.  For others, they may have some of everything on the table and feel very full, but never satisfied, which can trigger the binge/diet cycle. Try to avoid this by anticipating some foods that work with your meal plan.

“Saving up” calories by skipping breakfast or doing extra workouts perpetuates the diet/binge cycle.  By coming to the table ravenous, you are more likely to eat in a way you may not be comfortable with, setting yourself up to restrict or purge later.  Recovery means honoring your body by feeding it when it needs food, even when there is a big meal on the horizon.


Try to avoid the “I blew it anyway, I might as well eat everything” thoughts. 

You are not dieting, therefore, you did not blow anything.  Remind yourself that food is neutral.  It doesn’t have the power to ruin your life.  If you want to eat everything, that is certainly okay, but eating because you feel like you blew your perfect eating streak is a slippery slope that also leads back to the diet/binge cycle.

Bring the phone numbers of people in your eating disorder recovery group and others who understand recovery.  Reach out.  Talk to people who you feel safe with.

If you are comfortable, make a no-diet talk rule.  That means, no one at the gathering can talk about weight, body size or shape, going on diets, going off diets, clean eating, so-called “wellness” diets, performance diets, cleanses, elimination diets- all of it is diet culture, and it is toxic to everyone (and frankly, boring conversation).  Often diet and body talk are a way to connect to others.  When people don’t know what else to talk about, they often turn to body hate.  This is especially true in Western culture, particularly with women.  It can almost be a relief to talk about how much you hate your belly, or thighs, or upper arms because we know we can connect to someone else in the room.  Women in this society are encouraged to pick apart their bodies and reduce them to flaws to be fixed.  We commiserate over this.  And I believe we can find more productive, less damaging and painful things to talk about.  We are smart, fascinating individuals, our bodies are the least interesting things about us.

If you don’t feel comfortable announcing the no diet-talk rule, walk away from any conversation about dieting and body size.  A simple, “my body isn’t up for discussion” is an effective way to end body talk directed at you.  Find ways and practice saying them so that your loved ones will understand. 


If you ate more than you feel comfortable with, first, look at it objectively. 

You ate food.  You didn’t kill anyone.  You are valuable person regardless of what or how much you eat. Food and eating, regardless of health or weight are not moral issues.  There is no reason for punishment for eating food, no matter how much.  You are not bad, you didn’t eat anything “sinful” even if it was extra sweet, fatty, chocolatey… Food has no moral value and neither does eating it.  This also goes back to diet talk.  Discourage anyone for saying things such as “I was so bad, I ate…” or, “I shouldn’t eat this, but…”  And conversely, discourage statements like, “I am being good today, so I will only have…” We may be good or bad, but I assure you, it’s not because of anything we ate. 

Acknowledge that the holidays are at least partially about the food, and that this is challenging for you.  It’s okay that you aren’t looking forward to this season.  It’s okay that you are dreading the family gatherings and parties and potlucks.  You don’t have to manage your disordered eating and live up to everyone’s expectations.   Take a deep breath.  Focus on what you need right now, and do the next smallest thing in that direction you can muster. 


Reach out for help

If you are stuck in the diet/binge cycle and don’t know how to step out of it, I want to encourage you to reach out for help.  Life without dieting and/or binge eating, enjoying food without guilt or punishment is possible.