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4 Tips for Supporting Friends and Loved Ones with Eating Disorders During the Holidays

"We can all be a little gentler, a little more understanding, and a little more informed when it comes to eating disorders and mental health."

There’s no denying that food plays an important role in everyone’s holiday traditions and is front and center at almost every get-together.

For a lot of people, the holidays are a time to indulge in and enjoy the dinners, potlucks, sweets, and party food. But for people who struggle with eating disorders, the holidays can be a time of stress, anxiety, and frustration.

It’s sometimes difficult for people with eating disorders to directly and accurately articulate what triggers them when it comes to food and the holidays, and it’s also difficult for their family and friends to know exactly how best to support them.

As someone who has battled an eating disorder for many years, I have experienced the intense discomfort and multitude of triggers that accompany the holiday season. This past month, as I was reflecting on how far I’ve come in my personal recovery, I began to compile a list of things I wish I could have expressed to my family and friends as ways to help and support me.

If you have a friend or loved one in your life who is struggling and needs a little extra support and love, here are four things you can do to open a dialogue and make the holidays a little easier on them.

1. Avoid negative food talk.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do if you have a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder is avoid negative food talk, and engage only in positive food talk. An example of positive food talk is saying something like, “Those cookies look delicious. Your sister made them from scratch!” instead of “Keep those cookies away from me or my pants won’t fit after dinner!” It can be helpful to keep conversations about food to a minimum and avoid negative or deprecating talk about things like calories, carbs, fat, “too much sugar,” weight gain, or your New Year’s resolution to lose 10 pounds. Though these may seem like innocuous topics to you, these are all examples of negative food talk that can be intensely triggering to your loved one.

2. Check in about the menu.

You might be in charge of cooking a holiday dinner for your family and friends. One of the most thoughtful things you can do before you go to the store to buy your traditional ingredients is check in with your loved one about the menu. It’s common for someone with an eating disorder to feel overwhelmed and apprehensive prior to a large holiday meal. 

Here are some examples of questions you might ask to check in: 

  • "Are these dishes you feel comfortable eating in moderation?" 
  • "Is there anything you would like added to the menu to make it easier and more comfortable for you to eat?"
  • "Do you want to help prepare the food? It can be something fun we do together!" 
Discussing the menu can give your loved one peace of mind and can also open a dialogue about any anxieties or fears they might have prior to sitting down at the dinner table. It will give them a sense of support during the meal.

3. Don't skip meals.

During the holidays, it’s very common to veer off a normal schedule. People take off work, go on vacation, and often skip meals to “save room” for the parties and dinners they have planned later that day. Though skipping lunch on a holiday might feel justified to you, skipping meals can be very triggering and often has different implications for someone with an eating disorder. Even if it’s just a light meal to hold you over, working three meals into the day promotes a healthy, balanced relationship with food and discourages restricting and dieting. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are just as important over the holidays as they are any other time of year!

4. Give space.

An eating disorder is a mental illness and needs to be treated as such. Things that might be easy to process and talk about for most people, can be mentally exhausting and stressful for someone who is battling an eating disorder. Give your loved one extra time and space when it comes to serving and pacing themselves throughout a meal. Also remember that self-reflection and general self-care take time and require a certain amount of granted personal space. Let your loved one know that you are available when they need support and keep the communication open, but also make sure you’re giving them space to work things out on their own.

We can all be a little gentler, a little more understanding, and a little more informed when it comes to eating disorders and mental health. I hope these tips give some insight into how to you can support your loved ones who are struggling, and lead to a happier, easier, and more peaceful holiday season for everyone. For those who are struggling, please know that you are not alone. You are beautiful, so loved, and capable of overcoming anything. Happy holidays!

Note: I am not a mental health professional. These tips are based on personal experience only.

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