Managing the Holidays When You Struggle with Food

The holiday season is a festive time of year often spent celebrating with family and friends. However, for those who struggle with eating disorders, holiday events that revolve around a buffet table can be stressful.

Christine M. Peat, PhD, an expert in eating disorders at UNC Medical Center, offers these three tips for enjoying holiday gatherings if you or a loved one has a difficult relationship with food.

1. Make a plan.

If you have an eating disorder and are in treatment, work with your therapist to determine coping strategies you can use during the holidays. For example, is there a person you can call in challenging moments such as mealtime or during food prep or cooking? You might need support when seeing loved ones for the first time in a while or when trying to adapt to a routine that isn’t typical for you.

Talk to your therapist to discuss phrases you can use to help get you through any stressful experiences.

“This is not always easy to do when you are in recovery, but practice makes it easier to anticipate potential comments and figure out how you want to respond in the moment,” Dr. Peat says.

She recommends that people who have an eating disorder and their loved ones attempt to focus on the happiness and joy that comes from being together during the holidays.

“Try to just enjoy everyone’s company and getting to catch up on the important parts of people’s lives,” she says. “Focus on that versus the food or the number of calories. That’s something that would serve everyone really well.”

2. Consider something other than appearances.

One of the hallmarks of the holiday season is visiting with loved ones you don’t see often—maybe just once a year. There can be a temptation to make comments on a person’s appearance, such as “you look so good” or “you’ve lost weight” or “you look so thin.” Dr. Peat says to refrain from doing this. The same goes for food-based comments, such as mentioning how big or small a portion a person is eating.

“I think abstaining from any of those kinds of comments, even if you think it’s kind of complimentary, can be really helpful in terms of just not triggering those with eating disorders,” she says. “These comments can be even more tricky to deal with than other body image pressures because they are often from people we care about and respect.”

You can use the holidays to model ways to comment on things other than physical appearance, such as asking about people’s jobs or hobbies, the shows they’re watching or the latest books they’ve read. You can compliment someone’s delicious cooking.

“You can educate people about the impact of appearance-related comments, and these can also be excellent opportunities to practice letting comments roll off of you like water off a duck’s back,” Dr. Peat says.

For example, share a story about how you and your friends refrained from negative talk about the body or appearance. It also can be helpful to share with loved ones that leading with appearance-related comments can inadvertently send the message that appearance is what’s most important, Dr. Peat says.

3. Practice self-care.

Hosting people for the holidays or going home for the first time in a while can be stressful, so it’s important to be mindful of self-care before, during and after these events, Dr. Peat says.

Make sure you get adequate sleep. Practice the skills you’ve learned in therapy. Give yourself permission to say no to invitations or requests you don’t truly want to accept. And don’t get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays that you forget to connect with loved ones in a meaningful way, Dr. Peat says.

“Don’t worry about everything being perfect and instead make time to connect with people,” Dr. Peat says. “Take the time to be present in the moment and enjoy the time that you have together.”

Need help for an eating disorder for yourself or a loved one? Contact the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at (984) 974-3834.