How to Care for a Loved One With an Eating Disorder This Holiday Season

While the holidays can be a time of great joy, but they can pose a challenge for people who struggle with disordered eating. If someone in your life is dealing with an eating disorder, here’s how you can help support them during a season of excess.

Emphasize the whole day, not just the meal

It’s undeniable that the holidays often feature big meals — and that’s especially true on Christmas day or any time when family and friends gather for a party.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this tradition, and people with eating disorders may even look forward to the event. However, these large meals can be stressful if they fear they will eat too much, or if they are having a hard time facing food at the moment.

Eating support groups and organizations recommend emphasizing that, first and foremost, the holiday experience is about family and friends coming together — not about the food.

As such, discussing the day as a whole — and ensuring that the meal is only one aspect of the fun — can help provide a sense of perspective. Taking walks together, playing games and watching films can all serve as alternative activities to emphasize. This strategy helps ease the pressure on eating disorder sufferers.

Ensure that everyone is on the same page

Remember that the arrival of out-of-town family members can prove to be a stressful moment. Extended family may not be aware of a relative’s relationship with food.

While we should never “out” people who have eating disorders, it is within our power to set the tone of the day. From the outset we can make it clear that the Christmas meal is an “eat what you like” event, where there is no pressure to eat a certain amount or specific types of food.

In addition, we can consult the person with anxieties around eating. For example, they may not wish to eat in front of everyone, or they may prefer a smaller plate. These simple allowances will not be conspicuous to most guests, but they can facilitate greater comfort.

Keep food away from the main entertaining space

People with anorexia or bulimia may struggle with the feeling of being surrounded by food. This can be particularly stressful and may even trigger binge eating.

One way to alleviate these concerns is to ensure that the main entertaining area remains free of food. This can provide space for people to sit and chat without food as the central activity.

Provide personal support

For people recovering from disordered eating, mental health goals may require extra work around the holidays.

Talking through a loved one’s aims for the day could be a way to show solidarity and provide opportunities to help. Some of those aims might include:

  • sitting down to a meal with everyone, even if the person won’t be eating much
  • selecting healthy portion sizes
  • not counting calories
  • helping to prepare food
  • not obsessing over the preparation of food
  • not avoiding food

And if a loved one feels like they aren’t able to live up to these goals, offer them an escape by asking them to go for a walk or engage in some other activity.

Be empathetic

Unfortunately, it might be that the pressures of the holidays become too much, and the person dealing with an eating disorder finds themselves having an episode of either not eating, binge eating or obsessing about food.

If this happens, help them to fall back on their self-care plan, and ensure that they know you are supporting them at this time. You can find more information about specific care plans for people with eating disorders here.

Understand that everyone is different

The above points are just general guidelines and are not meant to serve as medical advice. It’s important to talk to anyone who may be struggling with food to understand their particular needs and help accordingly.

By taking into account the fact that not everyone looks forward to a holiday meal, we can remain sensitive and help encourage a more welcoming atmosphere that caters to everyone’s needs.

Related Reading:
5 Ways To Prioritize Your Mental Health This Year 
5 Ways To Help Others On Christmas Day 
4 Ideas On How To Shop According To Your Values This Christmas

Photo Credit: David Monje/Unsplash

49 comments

Marie W
Marie Wabout a month ago

Thanks

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Paulo R
Paulo R6 months ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo R6 months ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo R6 months ago

ty

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Mike R
Mike R7 months ago

Thanks

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Clare O
Clare O7 months ago

Hospitality tends to mean offering food and drink especially in the cold. If someone says no, fine.

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Liliana Garcia
Liliana Garcia7 months ago

Hmmm. Maybe having the person helping out with some small tasks could help dispel the stress on food. Not easy since all the enticing smells will be floating around...

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Elaine W
Elaine W7 months ago

Good to know.

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Mike R
Mike R7 months ago

Thanks

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Henry M
Henry M7 months ago

Holidays shouldn't be about food. This isn't the stone age, no one is going to starve if they wait until they get home to eat.

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