The holidays can be stressful for all of us! We have full schedules, presents to buy, gatherings to organize, and relatives to contend with. Navigating the holidays with an eating disorder can be even more stressful. Most holiday gatherings center around food, and this can be an added stressor for someone in eating disorder recovery. Well meaning loved ones can also contribute to the distress, by making personal comments or asking unwanted questions.
So what is an eating disorder, exactly? Eating disorders are mental health conditions that are characterized by unhealthy eating patterns. This could involve restriction (not eating or eating very little), binge eating (eating large amounts, and feeling unable to control how much you are eating), and/or purging (via vomiting, laxatives, over-exercise, among other methods). People with eating disorders may also struggle with poor body image, fear of weight gain, and health complications due to disordered eating. Eating disorders are treatable, but treatment can be a long and challenging process.
You may be asking, “How do I know the right thing to say to my loved one?” There are common missteps that you can avoid, as well as things that may be helpful to do or say. Here are some helpful dos and don’ts for talking to loved ones around the holidays!
Don’t discuss numbers, dieting, or make “food shaming” comments.
Calories, fat, carbs, weight, inches- anything involving numbers can be triggering for someone with an eating disorder. Avoid bringing up any numbers, and try to gently change the subject if others bring them up. Additionally, avoid making negative comments about the food, such as “this is going straight to my thighs” or “the diet starts tomorrow”.
Don’t comment on their plate.
People in eating disorder treatment may have a specific meal plan they are following, and some foods may be more challenging than others. Family members often make comments such as “why don’t you eat a little more?” or “wow, that sure is a lot of food!” and these comments can be extremely anxiety provoking.
Don’t comment on their body.
“You’ve lost weight”, or “you look so healthy” are common statements made by well meaning family members. These comments may seem positive, but they can be upsetting to someone who is struggling with their body image. Avoid commenting on your loved one’s body, even if it seems like a compliment. Instead, just let them know how happy you are to see them!
Ask them about their life, not their eating disorder.
Ask your loved ones how they are doing, about their interests, work or school, or other topics not related to their body or their eating disorder. They have probably been asked about their recovery by many other people, and it can be very stressful to be asked the same personal questions repeatedly. Keep the conversation focused on their strengths, rather than their struggles.
Help them by redirecting unhelpful comments.
You can support your loved one by changing the topic if other people at your gathering make unhelpful comments. For example, if another family member makes a comment about the food being “fattening” or needing to diet, change the topic by saying something like “this casserole is really tasty, who made it?” or “how are your children doing?” Changing the topic can take the pressure off of your loved one and mean they don’t have to redirect the conversation themselves
Ask your loved one how you can support them.
If you are close with your loved one and notice that they seem to be struggling, consider privately asking if there is anything you can do to support them. They may want support, or not, and it is important to listen to them and support them in the way they want. Sometimes, just knowing that someone is there for support can be helpful. Remember that if you do offer support, to do it privately rather than in front of others.
Having support from loved ones is important for people in recovery, so doing what you can to show support and consideration can make a big impact. If you want to learn more about eating disorders and their treatment, check out the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) website. If you think that your or a loved one might need treatment, check out NEDA, Psychology Today, or even just search online for eating disorder treatment in your area.
Meet Our Guest Author
Mary Monaghan, LCSW, LCAS, CCS-I is a therapist and clinical supervisor specializing in treating eating disorders, substance abuse, and trauma. She has a private practice in Asheville, NC, and is a chairperson on the new Asheville chapter of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IADEP).
To learn more, check out her website at: www.mountaingrovecounseling.