Holidays are a difficult time for those struggling with eating disorders.  Food is a prominent feature of the Holidays, and what would for others be a potentially enjoyable experience, it can present additional stress.  Here are some useful pointers for those with eating disorders, or those who are trying to provide support for eating disorders around the Holidays.

No Skipping Meals

At Cielo House, one of the main preparations that we help clients with when it comes to the Holidays is to make a plan around the food.  The first thing that we tell clients is to stick to a normal eating pattern on that day. This can be a very hard thing to accomplish when people around you making comments about not eating all day to “save room” for the meal that you will have that afternoon. Skipping meals and snacks is a HUGE set up. When we allow ourselves to get overly hungry our biological drive to eat kicks into overdrive and sends messages to our brain to get food which usually results in overeating. For individuals with eating disorders, this can usually play out in two different ways.

One way is that it can cause hunger to get so intense that all thoughts of moderation and balance go out the window and you’re set up for the “wolf pack eating”- when we get so hungry that we eat until there is nothing left but the bones. This is a survival instinct. It has nothing to do with “willpower” or “self-control.” We know that if we let ourselves to get to the point of being “Hangry” we most likely will eat until the point of being overly painfully full.

For others this inconsistent eating pattern can feed into the desire to restrict and re-ignite the desire for control of emotions through controlling our eating. With emotional stressors running high, you may already feel nauseous and sick because of the chemical effects stress has on your body. Not eating and skipping meals will only add to these problems.

The Meal itself

Many of the foods we have around the holiday are foods that have emotional connections or labels. We view these foods as “bad” or “unhealthy” foods which then causes them to have power in our lives. Most people don’t have experience eating these foods in a normal way, so they end up either 1. Avoiding these foods at all cost, or 2. Overeating these foods and having guilt and shame about what they ate.

When you’re building your plate, you want to start by asking yourself how can I get a balanced meal? Breaking it down into components can be helpful. Your body doesn’t have the same emotional connection to the food as your eating disorder has created. It can break down food and utilize it the same way no matter what type of food it is. Thanksgiving food can fit into a well-balanced meal. Here is an example of a balanced plate           

  • Protein= turkey is an excellent source of protein, so this is the perfect way to get that need met. Go for white or dark meat. Whichever you prefer, whichever tastes better to you. If you are vegetarian, getting your protein at a Holiday dinner may be more difficult. You may want to volunteer to bring your own protein containing item- tofurkey loaf (they have a special Holiday vegetarian option) or you may even bring your favorite tofu dish or protein of choice. If you can’t do that, then you can build your meal with the other options and have a higher protein snack options and at other meals during the day to bump up your protein intake.
  • Grains- There are so many tasty options for grains during the Holidays, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and sweet potatoes to name a few. What are the two items on that list that are your favorite? Choose those items and have a serving of each. If you are new to recovery and coming from a very restrictive place, choose items that on a scale of 1-10 on the fear/anxiety scale (10 being the highest) are close to the middle area. Remember that just because the food is present at a Holiday meal doesn’t mean that all of the sudden it is worse for you. Again, our bodies know how to break down carbohydrates into the essential energy (for every cell in our body) that we need.
  • Veggies-Choose your favorite veggie option from green bean casserole, salad, roasted Brussel sprouts. These will be giving you satisfying tastes and help your meal taste, temperature and texture feel more balanced.
  • Fat- Much of the fear around eating food items that might even normally be perceived as safe (sweet potatoes, veggies) come from the way the food is prepared with fat. Fat is an essential part of our diets. We need it to survive. Fat also holds the satisfaction factor in food. Meaning if I eat a food item that has little to no fat in it I’m way more likely to feel deprived and be left looking for more food to eat. Fat also helps us absorb essential vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K. Without fat our bodies cannot properly absorb and transport those nutrients. To me this is another example of the amazing connection between our tastes and needs. Vegetables that contain these essential vitamins often taste much better and are well pared with fat sources (salad, dark leafy green veggies, carrots and dip). Honor your body by giving it adequate fat.
  • Dessert- Don’t skip out on dessert. Dessert at Holiday get togethers is often a true part of the celebration. Don’t miss out by avoiding dessert. Allowing yourself to eat dessert regularly and in moderation helps decrease feeling of deprivation which often lead to overeating. If you struggle with restricting behaviors and avoid dessert out of fear it is positive to do exposures around facing your fear so that food starts to have less emotional control over your life. You can do that by trying your fears regularly with the support of your treatment team, family and friends so that you can see that over time it gets easier!

Cope-ahead

When going into any potentially triggering situation, it is always helpful to acknowledge that it may be stressful. Identifying the potential triggers can help you intervene or utilize tools to help decrease your distress.  Go through the holiday/event that you are going to and identify trigger points, then create a potential plan for support, distraction or distress tolerance.

Here are some examples of things that I have seen be successful for patients when creating a plan for potentially triggering situation

  • Have a check in point with a support person. Set up a specific time or just let the person you’re checking in with know that you may be texting or calling ahead of time, so they know how best to support you.
  • Take five- change your environment. Leave the dining room, kitchen or area where family are gathered and take some time for yourself. Most people feel that going outside and walking around the block or going outside and playing with an animal, can be good reset times to help you return to the situation with less stress.
  • Reminders- identify some scents, sights, or sounds that help to calm you and remind you of your values. For scent you might keep lavender essential oil in your purse if that calms you. For sight you may have a picture on your phone that connects you with a support person, nature (picture of the beach or nature), or picture of an animal. For sounds you might have your favorite song available on your phone to listen to. These are reminders that bring you back to your values.
  • Distraction- you might utilize distraction techniques such as playing a game with family, engaging in conversation with a family member, or (my favorite) playing a game like hide and seek with the kids.

If you can talk it through with your therapist and dietitian before your holiday it can be helpful to identify specific things that have worked for you in the past and practice those skills prior to going in to the holiday event.

Holidays are a time of celebration and can contain moments of great joy but may also contain reminders of great sadness. Be kind to yourself, respect your vulnerabilities! No matter how the holidays go remember that it is a journey to get to the place of recovery, and that making it through these times is a part of the process to getting to where you want to go. It is not a journey in the express lane on the freeway speeding by without observing but more like a nature walk down a poorly kept path. You see flowers, butterflies, streams, and birds along the way. While you may get off the trail sometimes when you find your way back, your life, your journey, and your story will be richer for the experiences you gained. 

Wishing you all the best of joy and celebrations for your holidays!

Jamie Olivo, RD is a Registered Dietitian with Cielo House.  She works with clients to find a sustainable recovery from their Eating Disorder over the Holidays and all year long.