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Eating Disorders

Navigating Disordered Eating During the Holidays

Tips for managing stress and eating during the holiday season.

Key points

  • The holidays can be a stressful time of year for those who struggle with disordered eating.
  • There are a variety of behavioural, psychological, and interpersonal strategies to manage disordered eating during the holidays.
  • Incorporating self-care into your routine when there’s a jam-packed schedule of events is necessary.
Libby Penner/ Unsplash
Source: Libby Penner/ Unsplash

The holiday season is a stressful time of year for many people. From family gatherings to expectations around events and gift giving, the emotional stakes can be high. Given the emphasis on food and eating as being central to celebration across cultures, this can make for an added layer of stress and anxiety, particularly for those struggling with disordered eating. While food choices can be difficult on an “average” day when disordered eating is in the mix, combining this with a plethora of holiday treats and potentially unwanted commentary on eating and weight from friends and family can turn holiday spirit into holiday stress. Keeping this in mind, there are many behavioural, psychological, and interpersonal strategies that can be useful in navigating the holiday season. While not a replacement for therapy itself, these tips can help food and eating to be less charged so you can focus on the festivities.

Behavioural Strategies

One of the hallmarks to behavioural treatment for eating disorders and disordered eating is the concept of regular eating. Whether you fall on the over- or undereating side of the spectrum, aiming to schedule meals and snacks every 3 to 4 hours is important in regulating both appetite and mood. This is particularly key around the holidays, a time when many people encourage restriction to “save room” for feasting.

You’ve probably heard someone casually say, “I won’t eat before dinner to make sure I’m nice and hungry"; however, this can be a recipe for disaster. Restricting and the inevitable hunger brought about by not eating puts you on the fast track to overeating, not because you lack self-control or willpower, but because your physiology will win out and want all of the things you’ve been depriving your body of. On the flip side, making sure you aim for regular meals and snacks, regardless of what big event is planned for the day, means that you will be better able to make mindful choices about what you want to eat and how much, because you, and not your hunger, will be calling the shots.

Psychological Strategies

In the context of disordered eating, food and stress tend to go hand in hand. Both restriction and overeating can be viewed as coping mechanisms to manage unpleasant emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations. Chances are, the holidays are likely to bring up some discomfort for most people, whether it be food-related or otherwise. Let’s say you have a tenuous relationship with your parents or are stressing out about every last detail of your holiday event going perfectly; it makes perfect sense that eating, or not eating, can be ways to help you regulate.

This has implications for how you manage stress and emotions around the holidays. Incorporating self-care into your routine when there’s a jam-packed schedule of events and festivities can be difficult, but it’s necessary to make sure you’re recharging your battery. Making time for fresh air, walks in the snow, or maybe even a good, old-fashioned snowball fight can help to increase mood and manage stress.

Mindfulness is another tool that can be a helpful go-to in managing stress and anxiety. While other coping strategies may require you to “do a thing,” breathing is always at your disposal. It’s stupid simple, but, at its core, deep breathing and paying attention to your breath is the most straightforward way to downregulate your physiology. Stress gets you fired up; your heart starts beating faster, your breathing gets shallower, and you prepare to either fight or run away from whatever stressor you perceive to be in front of you. The minute you start to intentionally and purposefully breathe, you slow this whole process down. When your heart is beating slower and you’re less physiologically aroused, your brain no longer has those “uh-oh; you’re stressed” cues to pick up on, and it’s easier to tell yourself that you’re OK.

Interpersonal Strategies

Like it or not, the holidays are inevitably a time when friends and family may provide unwanted commentary on your shape, weight, or eating choices. While we wouldn’t dare comment on someone’s race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, weight seems to be the final frontier whereby questions like, “Have you lost weight?”; “Have you gained weight?”; and “Why aren’t you eating more?” are all fair game, despite being incredibly inappropriate. Knowing that these types of comments are likely to come up in some capacity can be helpful in order to prepare for how you want to navigate them.

First and foremost, it’s incredibly useful to remember that people’s commentary has less to do with you than it has to do with them. It is coloured by their perceptions, expectations, and emotions, and you have a choice to make about whether or not you want to take that on. What we are talking about here is boundaries. Boundaries are up to the individual to set and hold, while acknowledging that it is not other people’s responsibility to necessarily respect those boundaries.

Let’s run with an example here. Maybe in advance of the holidays, you request to sit down with your close friends and family to communicate some of your needs. They know that you struggle with disordered eating, and they have expressed the desire to support you. You explain, using “I language,” that you feel uncomfortable when others make unwanted commentary about your shape or eating habits, putting forth the request for said topic to be kept off the table this holiday season. The discussion goes well, and you feel a sense of relief. Then comes that anticipated holiday dinner. Everyone is having a good time and maybe drinking a bit more than normal, getting increasingly disinhibited. Your sister comments, “You have hardly eaten anything all evening; please just have a slice of this pie I made,” across the table and everyone falls silent. What do you do?

You communicated your needs, and, yet, here you are in the exact situation you were trying to avoid. Upholding your boundary can take different forms depending on what you are comfortable with. You could tell your sister directly that her commentary is not welcome, and that you are an adult who is responsible for their own eating choices, so it is not necessary for her to chime in. Maybe this is enough, or maybe she continues to push the issue. You might choose to leave the table and go take some deep breaths in another room, or you can put her commentary back onto her with a simple, “I hear that’s what you think,” saying it in a neutral tone to give her nothing to react to.

Central to all of this is remembering that, whatever is going on, it actually has very little to do with you. In the example above, it’s likely your sister’s fear and concern about you and your well-being, that she is placing on you, regardless of whether or not you want it. When you remember and accept this, it means that you can make the choice not to buy into it.

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