Beyond the Food: Redefining the Meaning of Thanksgiving While in Eating Disorder Recovery
A hand with a pen writes "thank you" on a brown piece of paper

For many, Thanksgiving is a day centered around wholesome traits like family, friends, gratitude, and food. For those struggling with disordered eating, Thanksgiving to be a particularly challenging time.

Here, several Equip team members share how they’ve found meaning in Thanksgiving that transcends beyond the meal and helps them reclaim the day for themselves and their loved ones.

Kevin Dunn, Director of Family Mentorship

Kevin Dunn, Equip's Director of Family Mentorship, acknowledges that Thanksgiving can be a tough day for some, due to everything from an out-of-ordinary meal to potential unsolicited body or weight commentary. But he says there are effective methods for reclaiming the day in the name of health and recovery.

"We can effectively navigate and support our loved ones’ through Thanksgiving conversations focused on weight, food, shape, movement, or diet by flexing our validation and distraction skills,” he says. “As we reply to those delivering triggering content, our response might sound like, ‘I can hear that topic is a challenge for you. We’re thankful for so much today. In fact, we made a list. I’ll bet we share gratitude for some of the same people and things. Let’s take a look.’”

Chita Gastelum, Family Mentor Lead

Gastelum grew up in a marginalized, Indigenous and Hispanic community. “My grandparents lived about 40 mins outside of Nogales, Sonora Mexico,” Gastelum says. “Their ranch was located off to the left down a dirt road near the railroad tracks. They lived in a makeshift home my grandfather built made of adobe and metal roofing. Their small farm was surrounded by the desert, mountains, and a small river a few feet away that consistently flowed.”

Gastelum and her family spent most of their time and holidays at her grandparents’ ranch. “As a child, I have a memory of my sister and I helping my grandfather collect vegetables from his garden. My nana and mother would roast corn outside, and they would cook the squash, potatoes, and green beans on the wooden stove. Afterwards, my sister, cousins, and I would help to make fry bread with piloncillo (pure brown sugar cane) syrup and the pumpkin empanadas (crescent shaped stuffed pastry) for dessert.”

When the family sat down for dinner, Gastelum says her grandfather would say a prayer of gratitude for the meal which included a mixture of the cooked vegetables, freshly made semitas, chicken, and charro beans. As the evening neared and the sun began to go down, he would share stories about her family’s ancestors and Indigenous folktales.

“I believe having this unique connection with my family, as well as being surrounded by nature created a safe space for me,” shares Gastelum. “It was moments like these shared in my culture where I felt nurtured and supported during my recovery from the eating disorder.”

Elizabeth Moscoso, Equip Peer Mentor

Equip peer mentor Elizabeth Moscoso says that growing up in a Central/South American family, she felt an underlying pressure to express gratitude for all the hard work it took to prepare the festive Thanksgiving meal by eating generous portions. “It can be tough for folks that want to please their loved ones and feel guilty if they aren't feeling that ‘clean-plate club’ honors their relationship with food,” she says. “By shifting the message to enjoying the holiday as a time to be with family and watch a movie, play a game, go on a gentle stroll in the neighborhood, and respect that this can be a tough holiday for people in eating disorder recovery can make the day feel inclusive. By taking focus off of the holiday food can be super helpful as recovery warriors heal their relationship with food and body."

Amy E. Cunningham, Equip Community Advisor

Equip community advisor Amy E. Cunningham acknowledges that separating the Thanksgiving holiday from food itself can be a tricky thing for those navigating recovery because “at the foundation of healing from an eating disorder is the need to eat food, and likely lots of it.” With that in mind, Cunningham has experience easing the difficulty that can often accompany this focus on food during the holiday and beyond.

“To be very honest, when my daughter —then age 11 — was in the deepest throes of anorexia and I was re-feeding through Family-based treatment, I did not celebrate Thanksgiving in the traditional way,” she says. “Food was at the center of our lives simply because I needed to re-feed her to save her life (food is medicine) and that meant six meals a day with the aim to increase her weight fast and in that way, counter the eating disorder.”

Cunningham says that instead of engaging in any mainstream traditions, she would treat Thanksgiving like any other day of recovery-focused meals and quality time and “just having a moment to quietly cuddle or watch a TV show would have been plenty for me.”

These days, Cunningham says the holiday is a different story altogether. “Today Thanksgiving does mean a great deal of enjoyment around food and family — we look forward to all the yummy treats and traditional family foods, as well as time for all of us to gather together,” she says. “The message is: even if this year's Thanksgiving is tough, know that with recovery from the eating disorder, there are happier days ahead!”

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