While there can be plenty of challenges along the road to eating disorder recovery, the holiday season presents a unique set of trials and tribulations. From the seemingly endless marathon of food-focused fêtes to the potentially triggering looks, words, and uninvited opinions of just about everyone, the holidays can be tough for anyone affected by an eating disorder (or disordered eating).
While there seems to be instructions for just about everything else in the holiday season — gift guides! Recipe collections! DIY decorations! — there’s no manual for making it through the winter holidays while navigating eating disorder treatment. There are, however, some strategies that can help alleviate stress, make difficult moments easier to handle, and even reinforce recovery practices and tactics. So if you’re supporting a loved one through recovery this holiday season, it’s important to take some time to map out a plan of action before you’re swept up in the hectic holiday energy. And experts seem to agree that heading into the hectic energy of the holidays with a plan of action may be the best strategy of all.
“Preparation is your best ally — plan everything in advance!” says Equip Family Mentor, Mary Martinez-Schmidt. “Set aside dedicated time with your loved one to help them identify any specific concerns they might have. There are lots of ways to help them copy ahead: by making a plan to tell certain relatives about conversations to avoid, by agreeing to plate a meal for them if they become too overwhelmed, by offering to go shopping with them to help them pick out a holiday party outfit that they feel confident in.”
Here’s a closer look at five potential holiday challenges to eating disorder recovery and recommended ways to handle each obstacle with grit, grace, and determination.
1. Food-focused celebrations
The challenge: It’s no secret that the holiday season is chock full of events with a heavy emphasis on food. And in many cases, for a variety of reasons, the meals and snacks that are served at these celebrations may feel overwhelming to those who struggle with an eating disorder. From multi-course dinners to all-day potlucks, holiday parties and get-togethers can feel overwhelming, scary, and anything but fun to those working on recovery.
The suggestion: “The holidays can come with more food related challenges than the rest of the year,” says Equip Registered Dietitian Camilla Blanton, RD, LDN, noting that holiday events often include foods that are tied up with feelings of nostalgia, or foods that are only served once a year. “If there are still fear-foods or foods your loved one is concerned about eating over the holidays, you can start by incorporating these food items more regularly in early December to help work on food neutrality,” she says. “This could look like adding some holiday cookies to your child's lunchbox or incorporating cinnamon rolls as part of your breakfast a couple times a week — whatever the food may be, finding a supportive way to incorporate it as a more normalized or neutral food can be extremely helpful.”
2. Unpredictable travel days
The challenge: Abandoning a routine and venturing into a new environment can be stress-inducing for just about anyone, but those in recovery may find the disruption to regular life especially trying. “Travel days are some of the toughest days when working towards eating disorder recovery during the holiday season,” Blanton says. “Many people forget to prepare themselves for a travel day that may push them out of their typical routines which can offset eating schedules.” Changing time zones, she notes, can add an extra challenge by disrupting appetite signaling, which can make it harder to stick to a meal plan.
The solution: While traveling by plane, train, or automobile may make certain aspects of recovery challenging, families can anticipate the potential hurdles and prepare as much as possible. “Pack extra snacks for the plane or car ride — more than what you think you might need, just in case of travel delays,” Blanton says. She also recommends sticking to a timed eating schedule, which can help keep your loved one accountable to their planned meals and snacks even if their hunger cues are thrown off from travel.
3. Unsolicited body commentary
The challenge: “One of the trickiest eating disorder challenges during the holidays is the amount of conversations centered around food and appearance,” says Equip Body Image Manager, Ally Duvall. “There are so many comments on how you should look during holiday get-togethers or how ‘bad’ you are for eating delicious treats that it can feel so overwhelming to still choose recovery.”
The solution: A helpful first step in combating unwelcome opinions or observations may be to head them off ahead of time by telling friends and family to leave body-related talk at the door. In some cases, a person struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder may not want to share their diagnosis with anyone outside their immediate support group, but are worried those same outsiders will make triggering comments or engage in problematic conversations around diets or body image. Martinez-Schmidt says a little planning may go a long way in these situations: “Reach out to family in advance and let them know that you would appreciate it if they avoided these topics of conversation, as you are working on cultivating a positive mindset and building a better relationship with your body and would love others to do the same,” she says. (Read more about how to approach holiday conversations during eating disorder recovery).
Duvall says one of her favorite ways to handle the unwelcome food police or body commenters at family and friend gatherings is rehearsing responses to negative body or food talk ahead of time. “You can practice this with yourself or someone you trust by saying a negative statement and then responding to it in a way that challenges or sets up a boundary,” she says. “One example could be: ‘I wish I could eat as much as you do’ and the response you could say is ‘I’d love to talk about something more interesting than how much or little we are eating — let’s change the subject.’”
Blanton says another way to draw a boundary around body commentary is to shift the focus entirely. “One strategy is to change the topic — perhaps you come in prepared with three ‘fun facts’ that you’ve recently heard from a podcast or read somewhere,” she says. “Coming prepared with some ‘change of topic’ prompts can support diverting the conversation to something other than food and body commentary.”
If taking the conversation into your own hands feels too overwhelming, Blanton says it may be helpful to model the type of neutral language around food and bodies that you’d like others to use (i.e. refusing to label foods as “good” or “bad” or assigning any sort of morality to food choices or body types). And if all else fails, calling in reinforcements is always a great idea. “Ask people in your support network to step in to change the topic,” says Blanton. “This can help in navigating group conversations and table talk.”
4. Finding the right clothes
The challenge: “Anyone who has been close to someone suffering from an eating disorder can relate to the intense and anxiety-inducing challenge of having to choose what to wear — especially for special occasions,” says Martinez-Schmidt. “This comes up a lot during the holiday season, as we often participate in large family gatherings, special events, school dances, and workplace holiday parties in which we all feel pressure to look our absolute best. This is even more challenging for someone with an eating disorder who suffers not only from body dissatisfaction but also from constant overvaluation of shape or weight.”
The suggestion: Just as finding the right Halloween costume or prom outfit can be anxiety-provoking for those in recovery, choosing a look for the holidays can conjure up some intense feelings. But in all these cases, comfort reigns supreme — selecting clothes that feel good and inspire confidence will likely eliminate the stress and self-consciousness that can arise from wearing constricting or otherwise uncomfortable clothing.
Martinez-Schmidt says it can be tricky for family members to know what to say to boost a loved one’s confidence or self-esteem, but the best strategy may be to maintain a neutral stance when it comes to discussing shape or body image. “Well-meaning friends and family might be inclined to offer compliments like ‘you look amazing,’ ‘you look healthier,’ or ‘you lost weight!’ in an attempt to offer reassurance. However, these statements — even if they’re meant to be positive — only reinforce your loved one’s excessive preoccupation with their body shape and size. The best strategy is to offer compliments and appreciation for qualities that are not related to physical appearance. Saying things like ‘your smile/laugh lights up the room’ or ‘you’re always the life of the party!’ will go a lot further in helping your loved one feel comfortable in their own skin.”
5. Feeling obligated to be the poster-person of recovery
The challenge: “I didn’t anticipate the guilt and shame I would feel around wanting to be the perfect example of recovery — especially during the holidays,” Duvall says. “I spent a lot of time worrying about my ‘recovery status’ if I didn’t challenge a diet culture comment from Cousin Sam or use my coping skills the way I had planned to. This fear of failing recovery, especially around times of high emotions and gatherings centered on food, can feel isolating and intense.”
The suggestion: Duvall says overcoming the pressure to be “perfect” requires a lot of patience and understanding that there really is no such thing as “perfect” in the first place — especially when it comes to non-linear journeys like eating disorder recovery. Taking time-outs and consciously reminding yourself of your values, your progress, and your worth can go a long way. “It’s so important to remember that you have the power to meet yourself with compassion and kindness,” she says. “Although shame might be your initial thought, what do you choose your second thought to be?” she asks.
Blanton agrees, adding that support networks exist for a reason, and their encouragement may be extra important during this time of the year. “The holidays can be hard for many struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder,” she says. “Allow yourself some grace and self-compassion as you move through the holiday season, and be sure to have your support network nearby if you need extra support this year.”