4 Tips for Coping with Eating Disorders During Food-Heavy Holidays

The holidays are a time to give thanks and enjoy quality time with loved ones. But often, especially during Thanksgiving, the day revolves around food.

As of 2012, it was estimated that Americans consume approximately 46 million turkeys each Thanksgiving, and the Calorie Control Council suggests the average American consumes about more than 3,000 calories on that day, with an added 1,500 in snacks and drinks. The recommended daily caloric intake for an adult is 1600-2400 for women and 2000-3000 for men.

For someone with an eating disorder, the food spectacle can be overwhelming.

“The holidays can be particularly challenging for individuals with eating disorders because of the increased focus on food as well as the stress associated with the season, which can serve as a precipitant of eating disorder symptoms including binge eating, purging and dietary restriction,” said Carol Peterson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical School. Peterson is also the Chieft Training Officer for The Emily Program, a Minnesota-based treatment program for eating disorders.

The mental illness is present in men and women, and the Eating Disorders Coalition estimates that 30 million Americans could struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime.

Peterson gave Health Talk some tips and insight for managing this serious condition during stressful, food-focused times.

Make a Plan

Write down expectations for the day and put specific steps in place for handling challenges, like eating more than planned. Brainstorm post-meal activities and ways to practice self-care, like yoga, reading or taking a nap. Work with your therapist, dietitian or other member of the treatment team to develop these plans, and always allow for some flexibility.

Create a Support Team

Family and friends can be extremely helpful in asking how, specifically, they can be supportive. Plan activities that don’t involve eating and talk to your loved one about other about his or her goals, aspirations and interests.

Needs for support are highly individualized. Some people may rely on friends and family for encouragement during meals, while others prefer to not discuss anything related to food. Be there to listen and ask your loved one directly how they would like your help.

Build Self-Awareness

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, it can help to approach holidays with curiosity and experimentation: What activities are most enjoyable? What foods are most challenging? How can friends and family be most helpful when I am feeling stressed? What do I find most meaningful about the holidays? Data suggest that checking in with your current emotions and behaviors can be especially helpful for changing eating disorder patterns and can help establish short and long-term coping skills

Focus On Celebration

First and foremost, the holidays are about reconnecting with those we love. Rather than fixating on food, focus on bonding with friends and family, and creating memories of your shared time together.