Thanksgiving is synonymous with family, festivities and FOOD. While the notion of gathering with loved ones around the table is pleasant for many with an eating disorder, it can be filled with landmines if you’re struggling with food, weight, and/or body image.
If you’re a chronic dieter, large holiday meals can reinforce binge behavior. Dieting, in fact, predicts binge eating, which in turn, leads to an endless cycle of “guilt” for bingeing, followed by restriction, and so on. We are literally drowning in diet talk and diet culture all year round.
If you are recovering from an eating disorder, particularly one that is restrictive, holidays like Thanksgiving and leading into the Christmas season 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 holiday meal or meals might include heavier “fear foods” and are often served buffet style – sometimes in the middle of the day. Family members, whether close or distant, can make insensitive comments without even realizing it.
Here are some thoughts my clients have shared with me that they want you to know:
“The hardest thing is the commentary from others about weight, breaking their diets, good/bad food, guilt, indulgence, “feeling like a cow,” 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.”
“I wish they knew what a waste of time it is to worry about the scale. People in my family are obsessed with diets and weight loss. I wish they understood how damaging it is to always refer to someone’s worth by their weight instead of their personalities or achievements.”
Can you safeguard yourself against being triggered in this way?
Discussing how you will respond to certain situations with your healthcare 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.
Now, what about you folks who are leaving the dieting life behind? How do you 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 as well as food restriction (AKA dieting).
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.
There are steps to take in protecting your recovery from chronic dieting, or disordered eating with respect to your family and friends.
Here are 5 steps to Make Peace with Food during the Holidays:
- No diet talk at dinner. None. Whatsoever. This means no talk about “good” or “bad” foods. No talk about your latest diet. 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. This means do not ask if a person has lost weight. This also means “no comments on my kiddo’s 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’s a nice walk, a quiet card game or listening to music.
- Focus on connecting with all the wonderful people in your life – and to have gratitude for the many wonderful things our bodies can do for us!
Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are often hard for people who are in recovery or practicing intuitive eating and leaving diet culture behind. Follow these steps and they will help you make a plan to get through weekends, like this one coming up and do it by making peace with food.
And you never know when you might end up educating one of your family members. As one of my clients told me, “I’m going to spend time enjoying my family time, football, and eating what appeals to me. With intuitive eating, there is no need to “overstuff!” And from another client, “I prefer to spend the holiday with good friends who have become my family!”
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Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She is certified as an eating disorder specialist and is passionate about helping women at midlife, menopause and beyond to make peace with food and body image.
Erica is a highly sensitive nutrition therapist who takes the time to learn where you or your family are in the pursuit of health. Respectful of your individual needs and lifestyle, she will provide an honest assessment of whether or not you are a good fit to work together. Click here to schedule a 15-minute Discovery Call with Erica to let us know about your needs, and to see which of our Dietitians is the best fit for you!
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