The media is partially to blame for disordered thoughts around food and weight.
Almost every headline mentions how many calories a person will be having during the Thanksgiving meal — even calling it “The Great American Cheat Day!” We are literally drowning in diet talk and diet culture all year round.
For most of us, Thanksgiving is synonymous with family, festivities and feasting. While the notion of gathering with loved ones around the table is pleasant for many, it can be filled with landmines if you’re struggling with food, weight, and/or body image. If you’re a chronic dieter, the large holiday meal can reinforce binge behavior. Dieting, in fact, predicts binge eating, which in turn, leads to an endless cycle of “guilt” for binging, followed by restriction, and so on.
Eating Disorder Recovery During Thanksgiving
If you are recovering from an eating disorder, particularly one that is restrictive, this holiday can be extremely anxiety provoking. While in recovery, some people will still be on a structured meal plan with specific foods, portions and times. The Thanksgiving “dinner” may include heavier “fear foods” and is often served buffet style in the middle of the day. Family members, whether close or distant, can make insensitive comments without even realizing it:
“The hardest thing is the commentary from others about weight, breaking their diets, good/bad food, guilt, indulgence, burning off the calories, or whatever. It seems like everyone feels the need to justify their food choices. I just want to tell them to shut up!”
“The worst is when people have self-imposed dietary restrictions and feel the need to convert others. And there’s this weird sort of pressure to join in on the diet talk because it’s almost like a bonding ritual.”
“Relatives may comment on the way someone looks, particularly if the person in recovery has gained or lost weight. Often an innocent comment such as, “You look great, or you look healthy” can be misinterpreted (through the eating disorder voice) and heard as “you look fat, or you have gained (or lost) so much weight. For someone in recovery, the idea that a family member might be watching their food intake or commenting on it is also very triggering.”
Can you safeguard yourself against being triggered in this way?
Discussing how you will respond to certain situations with your health care provider, support person or friend beforehand can be very helpful. I encourage my clients to think about what will be served at the meal if they are following a specific meal plan. Learning to set boundaries with others can be very empowering. You can say that the table is a diet-free zone and be prepared with subjects to discuss that are totally unrelated, such as politics, travel, weather, etc. Asking a friend, or family member for support at the event may be necessary. Focusing on gratitude for all the wonderful progress you have made rather than on the negatives of the holiday season can also be helpful.
What can you do if you are triggered?
If you are triggered, remember to breathe! Taking a few deep breaths and removing yourself from the immediate environment might involve a walk outside or listening to music. Summon your healthy voice as a reminder that this is just one meal, on one day. Friends or relatives won’t necessarily understand how difficult recovery is — they are usually just trying to be helpful. Have a plan made up beforehand for dealing with these potential triggers.
How do I avoid eating everything and more at the table (when I’m giving up on dieting)?
If you have a history of binge or emotional eating, remember that “all foods fit” and there are no “good” or “bad” foods. If you try to avoid eating something tasty, you will more than likely find your way back to it, and have more than you would have had in the first place! Take a nice deep breath, and survey the scene. Look and see which food or foods are appealing to you. Do your best to be mindful, and try to taste the food items you put on your plate. You can decide if the food tastes good enough to continue eating.
If you do happen to eat emotionally, or have more food than you feel comfortable with, remember that emotional eating is often a normal response to stress. It can be quite challenging to see, smell and touch a large amount of highly palatable foods. Have compassion for yourself. Remember that learning to give up dieting is a process that is filled with ups and downs. Each “mistake” is just an opportunity to practice new skills.
What can I tell family or friends who want to avoid triggering me?
Help make this Thanksgiving stress-free by sharing these thoughts:
- No diet talk at dinner. None. Whatsoever. There are so many more interesting things you could be talking about!
- Do not comment on other people’s body weight, appearance, or their food choices.
- Find other ways of complimenting people besides their looks.
- Come up with some ideas to help distract from food post meal — whether it is a game of football, a nice walk, or a quiet card game.
- The holidays are a time to focus on connecting with all the wonderful people in your life -whether they are friends or relatives.
Here is an interview I conducted the other day with Lisa Ellis, MS, RD, CEDRD, LMSW, on Managing Thanksgiving While Recovering from Disordered Eating. We had a wonderful time sharing tips and strategies so feel free to share if you think it could be helpful to someone you know!