Holiday Help for Eating Disorders

‘Tis the season for family, friends and most of all….food. It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but if you have an eating disorder, Thanksgiving (and the holiday season in general) may seem absolutely overwhelming. The good news is…it doesn’t have to be! A little thoughtful planning and preparation ahead of time can go a long way to help you remain calm and confident during a season of festivities that revolves around food.

Over the years, our patients at the RWJBH Eating Disorders Program have shared many questions and concerns regarding holidays and meals. Overall, previous patients have attributed “planning ahead” as being one of the most helpful strategies to having successful (and even enjoyable) holidays.

The RWJBH staff of the Eating Disorders Program would like to dedicate this post to anyone who is suffering with an eating disorder – whether you have been one of our patients or not. Here, we share some common nutrition-related holiday worries reported by our patients with possible strategies to guide you.

Q: How can I handle a situation where someone is strongly encouraging me to have a food item that I don’t need/want at the moment or just don’t like? Is it okay to say “no”?

A: Absolutely – it IS okay to say no! While “saving” all of your foods for one meal is strongly discouraged, planning in for an extra or two at the holiday meal could help you to feel safe with your food choices. On the other hand, choosing to enjoy a spontaneous “extra” food item could be a good challenge for yourself if you’re further along in the recovery process. In any case, examples of how to politely decline include….

  • "Oh, it looks delicious, but I’ve had enough, thank you!"
  • "I’ll pass on ____________, but would love to try the _________ instead"
  • "No thank you, I’m saving room for dessert!"
  • "I’m full right now, thank you – but I’d love to take some home with me…"
  • Or even just a simple “no thank you.”

Q. I’m anxious about the amount and types of food that will be served…what if I don’t feel okay eating any of the food?

A. If you’re anxious about being able to eat food items at the party, offer to bring something(s) that you feel safe with. Calling ahead to the host/hostess to get suggestions on “what to bring” could also allow for the opportunity to hear what’s on the menu: “just wanted to know what you’re serving so I could bring something that goes well with it.” Maybe you’ll be okay with the main entrée, but decide the dessert choices are too overwhelming and offer to bring another that is more “safe” for you.

Also, you could plan a “trial” holiday meal with people you feel comfortable with. This would provide a good opportunity for you to practice focusing on the conversation and on enjoying the company of family/friends.

Q. What if I feel the urge to use behaviors?

A. By planning meals and coping strategies ahead of time, you’re already reducing the likelihood of behavior use and setting yourself up to succeed. An all-too-common idea among people with eating disorders involves restricting meals early in the day in anticipation of a big holiday meal (or “saving exchanges”). While patients might argue that they will still be meeting meal plan requirements by the end of the day, this pattern will almost guarantee use of your eating disorder. By the time you get to the party, you may not only feel famished, but perhaps tired and irritable as well. In other words, a state of mind that is not conducive to enjoying the day.

If urges to use behaviors are still strong, changing your immediate environment can be helpful. Go to another room or outside for some fresh air. Reaching out to others for support is an important coping skill. Try calling a friend or sending a text/email. Using a phone application such as “Recovery Record” can provide additional support. If you are a current patient in the RWBH Eating Disorders Program, you already have access as well as a connection to our nutrition staff. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help!

Q: What if I don't follow my exact meal plan during the holiday event or if I’m afraid to "go over" on my meal plan?

A. Depending on where you are in the recovery process, the very thought of having an “extra” or “unplanned” food might be anxiety provoking. In this case, following a more structured meal plan would be helpful. While having three balanced meals with snacks is ideal, this may not be possible on the holiday. In the past, our patients have found it helpful to first allot a specific number of exchanges/food groups/servings etc. for the holiday meal. Using this as a guide, the remainder the meal plan could be divided evenly among other meals/snacks. If you feel you’ve eaten too much or have "gone over" on your meal plan, remember that one meal will not have a significant impact on weight or health.

Q. How can I avoid uncomfortable food and/or weight comments from others?

A. Unfortunately, this may be unavoidable. While we cannot control the words of others, we can control how we respond to the comments. It may help you to remember that not everyone understands eating disorders and/or how to be supportive to someone who has one. Questions may be asked out of genuine concern for your well-being and comments that may seem intrusive may be an attempt for someone to convey their support. Keeping this in mind can help you remain calm and assertive. Examples of possible well-meaning comments/questions:

  • “You look so healthy!”
  • “I can’t remember the last time I saw you eat like that.”
  • “Is that all you’re going to eat?”

If you feel you will have a difficult time with this, talking to your therapist or someone supportive can allow you to "practice" how you might respond or communicate your needs. One example:

  • “I feel good, thank you.”
  • “Comments about my eating are not helpful, but I’m doing well, thank you.”
  • “I appreciate your concern, but I’m eating what I need to, thanks.”

Remember, recovery is not perfect and it is a holiday. Try to enjoy yourself, the time you have with your family/friends…..and yes, even the food.

Have a safe and happy holiday!

Christine DeSouza MS, RD

Nutrition Coordinator

Eating Disorders Program