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“Best Practices” for Eating Disorder Recovery During the Holidays

For many people the holidays are “the most wonderful time of the year” as families gather to share in food and festivities of the season. For people recovering from and eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, the holidays present numerous obstacles and challenges. With proper preparation, a strong support team and a high level of motivation, the holidays can become a successful triumph in the journey through recovery.

One key to sustaining recovery through the holidays is preparation through a plan containing structure. It is helpful to know in advance where the family is gathering, what foods will be on the menu and what time dinner will be served. Undoubtedly, there will be numerous quantities of tempting or even anxiety provoking foods at each family party. A structured plan that is consistent with recovery based behaviors can help develop safety in these risky situations.

Many people look forward to the food on holidays. The traditional family recipes, trays of baked cut out cookies, and endless appetizers are just some of the foods present on family buffets. For individuals with eating disorders, it is incredibly difficult to be in the presence of such forbidden and often tempting foods. Those recovering from anorexia nervosa will likely experience quite a bit of anxiety over the quantity of rich and indulgent food which they typically restrict themselves from eating. For those with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, the day is filled with persistent temptation to over indulge. This temptation can often lead to loss of control and subsequent feelings of shame or guilt.

The timing of the holiday meal is also an important element for which to plan. People recovering from an eating disorder should plan to maintain a specific and structured routine of eating meals throughout the day. “Winging it” just does not work! There is sometimes a tendency to eat little (restrict) throughout the days before the “big meal” but this strategy often backfires and recovering individuals place themselves in danger of either restricting for the day or bingeing during the one large meal. Having a very specific and structured plan of when to eat meals is as important as considering what to eat at those meals.

Another key element to help a person stay safe with meals through the holidays is enlisting a strong support team. Recovering individuals will need at least one (preferably more!) person to be their “assistant” throughout the day. This designated person can assist by offering support during meal time; serve as a monitor to supervise behaviors that could lead to eating disorder symptoms (i.e. bingeing, retreating to restroom directly after meals, restricting, etc.) This supportive person can help the recovering individual follow his or her structured eating plan, assist in determining accurate portion sizes and encourage recovery-based behaviors. Additionally, this identified support can help ease awkward conversations and questions from curious family members. It is extremely beneficial for a recovering individual to have an assistant that can help navigate and potentially defuse uncomfortable comments about appearance, dieting, weight loss/gain, eating or eating disorders. This person can also help prepare for the holiday by making phone calls, asking about the menu, deciding the eating times and providing education to family members by explaining and sharing some do’s and don’ts for the day (see list below)

For a recovering individual to survive the holiday with success they will need a reminder of their motivators. Motivation plays a central role in any successful endeavor and recovery is no exception. Individuals need to take an inventory of their motivators, acknowledge their past slips, learn from mistakes and realize their progress and success. For many, family and loved ones are a main motivator. The holidays can serve as a celebration of these motivators as many gather in the festivities of the season. Expressing gratitude, giving and receiving the love of the season and celebrating the accomplishments of another year past, can encourage one to pursue health and wellness in the upcoming New Year.

The holiday season can be as stressful as it is wonderful. For those recovering from an eating disorder, the day can present numerous challenges. Careful planning, a strong support team and internal motivation can allow a recovering individual to enjoy the celebrations of the season and realize that indeed “It’s a Wonderful Life” to live in recovery and health.

Some Do’s and Don’ts for the Holiday Season

Do’s

  • Follow a structured eating plan
  • Find out the menu in advance
  • Determine where and when you will be eating
  • Indentify a support person to help
  • Avoid “fat talk”, diet talk or food conversations that could be upsetting
  • Be assertive with people who pressure you to eat more/less
  • Get right back to structure if you engage in any eating disorder behaviors
  • Communicate feelings to support person
  • Have an “exit strategy” planned if things become too overwhelming
  • Suggest and develop family traditions that do not involve food (caroling, games, and activities)
  • Plan a variety of foods to help prevent bingeing on “Forbidden Foods”

Don’ts

  • Think you can “wing” it
  • Be afraid to ask for help
  • Keep feelings bottled up or mask emotions
  • Engage in all or nothing thinking—if you have a slip the entire day is not a failure
  • Celebrate with alcohol; it can lower inhibitions and adherence to your structured plan
  • Offer to host if it is too stressful
  • Offer to cook/bake if it is too tempting

Happy Holidays and here’s to another year of health, recovery, happiness and wellness!

Contributed by:

Meggan Desmond MSW, LISW-S
Director, Adolescent Residential Program, River Centre Clinic