Recovery and the Holidays: How To Help a Loved One With an Eating Disorder

Nov 15, 2023

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While the holiday season is often thought of as the most joyful times of the year, it can be the most overwhelming time of year for those with eating disorders.

Many of the different foods, scenarios, and conversations that arise on holidays can easily trigger disordered thoughts, urges, and behaviors for those struggling with an eating disorder. This can include everything from foods that present challenges to unhelpful comments from others surrounding foods and bodies.

However, as a loved one, one of the greatest ways you can show your love — not just this holiday season, but year-round — is to be a support.

But where do you begin? If you have a loved one who’s on their recovery journey from an eating disorder, you may be wondering how to help them.

Here are a few ideas on how to help a loved one with an eating disorder during the holidays.

Keep Regular Eating Patterns and Meals as You Would on Any Other Day

Especially on holidays where food is often a focal point — like Thanksgiving — many people normalize skipping breakfast in an effort to “save calories” for later in the day. However, this is a disordered habit. It’s also not helpful for those in recovery.

And for someone with an eating disorder, Thanksgiving — just like every holiday and every ordinary day — is a day when it’s important for their recovery to follow their meal plan. Even if your loved one isn’t on a meal plan, food-centric days where people often engage in irregular eating behaviors can be challenging.

However, keeping as regular eating patterns as possible — like still eating breakfast and having snacks — helps take some of that pressure away from mealtimes.

Watch Your Language

This is a general rule for helping someone in recovery, but you definitely want to avoid any diet-centric comments around food or bodies when helping a loved one with an eating disorder.

This can include:

  • Categorizing food or ingredients as “good” and “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy,” or using any other black-and-white language
  • Any numbers-focused conversations on the number of calories in food, weight (yours or anyone else’s), duration of exercise, clothing sizes, etc.
  • Commenting on needing to “earn” or “burn” calories from eating a certain way, or engaging in restriction before or after meals
  • Making any comments about your, another person’s, or your loved one’s body — even if you think it’s positive
  • Commenting about needing to “do better” and change habits surrounding food or exercise in the moment or with the new year
  • And more

Things that are okay include:

  • Commenting on the taste of food, and how you enjoy it
  • Telling your loved one you appreciate their company and the chance to celebrate the holidays together
  • Checking in on your loved one to see how they are doing

Help Shut Down Comments From Others That Don’t Help the Eating Disorder

Even if you’re diligent about not making comments that may be triggering for the person you’re supporting, others may not be. Even if others know your loved one is struggling, others just may not be as aware of what topics or comments may be harmful.

One of the best ways you can help in these situations is to shut down these conversations and steer the talk to another topic. You don’t have to be rude about it — but don’t be afraid to say something simple like “It’s a holiday, I’d rather not talk about that. Can we talk about something else?”

Or, you can blow past the discussion with a question or another topic. It can be helpful to think of situations that may arise ahead of time, so you can be prepared and know best how to help your loved one.

For someone with an eating disorder, Christmas and other holidays may be dreaded more than they are enjoyed for reasons like this. Knowing they have someone on their side to help shut down these unhelpful conversations can help them enjoy the day more.

Provide Distractions and Keep Conversations Going Through Meals

Mealtimes, in particular, can be especially overwhelming for those working to recover from an eating disorder. The person you’re supporting may be struggling to get through the meal.

Even if they’ve been in recovery for a while, thoughts from the ED on holidays can be especially strong with all the focus on food. 

Having some conversation ideas or table games to play during the mealtime are a great way to help your loved one not get lost in a thought spiral.

It helps pull some of that focus away from food, and instead puts the focus on spending time with family and friends, and enjoying time spent together.

Suggest Challenge Foods and Have Them Available

If you know there are certain “challenge” or “fear foods” that may be difficult for your loved one, preparing those foods and offering them during a meal or snack can help normalize eating them and ease some of the anxiety around it.

Especially early in recovery, it can be difficult for your loved one to ask for or reach for those foods on their own. Having those foods readily prepared so you can enjoy them together can help ease some of those feelings of anxiety and make it less overwhelming.

This is a great way to help challenge the eating disorder on a holiday, and to show support for your loved one!

However, know that everyone is at a different stage in recovery, so it’s best to be on the same page with the individual journey of the person you’re supporting to know if this is what’s best.

Check In, and Offer To Take a Break

With all the “noise” that often comes from an eating disorder, recovery can already be exhausting. Couple that with a day where eating is often the center and there are lots of others around, and it can easily get very overwhelming.

Checking in with your loved one to see how they’re doing — ideally away from the group — and offering to take a break together can be a great way to calm down.

You could go on a short drive or walk together after a meal, and just take a few minutes to enjoy some quiet time. Or, you could sit together in another room.

Regardless of how it looks, checking in and taking a break allows you to see how you can better support them and give your loved one a chance to decompress. It also provides an opportunity to discuss any challenges that may have arisen at a meal or other time.

Eating Disorders Don’t Have To Rule Holidays

Any day can be difficult for those in recovery — but holidays can be particularly challenging, especially with so much focus on food.

Knowing how to support your loved one with an eating disorder on the holidays — and taking these ideas and applying them to other days — can make a world of difference.

Helping ensure conversations are recovery (rather than diet-culture) focused, trying to take the emphasis off of meals, and offering to enjoy a wide variety of things to eat together, including challenge foods, are all great ways to help the person you’re supporting through their recovery journey.

Written by Krista Godfrey, MS, RD, LMNT

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