When Food Is Family

Key ingredients in the eating disorder mix

Coping with Holiday Health

How to support loved ones with an eating disorder during the holidays

Holidays can be a struggle for families coping with an eating disorder
Holiday stresses can often trigger eating disorder behaviors
The holidays are a time of family togetherness, and for the typical family, that often means plenty of holiday food and lots of time spent together. But for families coping with eating disorders, holiday meals can so often be more of a struggle than a celebration.

In addition to issues around food, the stresses, appearances and pressures associated with the holidays can often trigger anxiety and feelings of loneliness, isolation and disconnection for the person struggling with the eating disorder, and can trigger various eating disorder behaviors.

Symptoms like severe food restriction, picking apart food or cutting it up into little pieces, and binge eating are behaviors you might see exhibited by someone struggling to control, conceal and comfort their true feelings. Mealtime and socializing with family members can become tense, argumentative and confusing to all involved.  This is not only true for those suffering from an eating disorder, who may fear all eyes are upon them during the festivities, but also for family members who may be dealing with the reality and seriousness of their loved one's condition.

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Some of the struggles for people with eating disorders, as well as signs to look out for during the holiday, include:

  • The need to look good and fit into a particular holiday outfit, or an overwhelming anxiety about appearance to family members;
  • Physically isolating from others, and being pre-occupied with food and the upcoming meal;
  • Comments regarding physical appearance such as, "you look so thin" or "I've heard of this incredible diet" serve to reinforce eating disorder thinking and behavior;
  • Unusual behaviors at the table, such as:
    • Shifting food around on plate to look like food has been eaten
    • Cutting food into tiny pieces
    • Chewing food and spitting it out
    • Eating a great deal of food and then going directly to the bathroom
    • Frequent trips to the bathroom immediately following meals

Those with eating disorders may in general stay away from meals for fear of losing control or gaining weight. Family members in turn may become concerned or frightened and as a result, respond in anger to these behaviors.  In these instances, it is important to remember that your loved one would not choose to have any eating disorder given the choice; they are struggling and their behaviors reflect struggle and pain.

During these times, families can work to support their loved ones by asking how they are feeling being around the food, rather than ask questions or comment about their eating behavior.  Commenting on their behaviors may only go to reinforce power struggles, and feelings of shame or criticism.   The family member preparing the meal can also ask if there is a particular way that their loved one can be best supported during the planning, preparing or serving of the meal - like preparing a food that is preferred and will support recovery.  Conversely, family members must be sure to offer only what they feel comfortable doing, so that resentment is not created around any special requests. 

Eating disorders are treatable, but we need to understand that recovery is a different process for everyone. Recovery is often a response to psychological awakenings, emotions, communication and a host of other feelings and relationships. By taking the time over the holidays to nurture, rather than neglect these feelings, it could make a world of difference for those you love - especially those struggling with eating disorders.

Judy Scheel, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., author of When Food Is Family, is the Founder and Executive Director of Cedar Associates Foundation.

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