How You Can Support A Loved One with an Eating Disorder during the Holidays

How You Can Support A Loved One with an Eating Disorder during the Holidays

A message from a registered dietitian who can relate 

By: Ashley Mooney, MS, RDN, LDN, Registered Dietitian at the Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center

The crisp winter air can be felt on our skin. The cheerful chatter of loved ones is heard in homes across the nation. The rich scents of peppermint and baked goods waft through the air. There is no doubt we are in the midst of the holiday season.

For most, these experiences bring about excitement and feelings of comfort. However, for many of the millions of individuals struggling with an eating disorder, they often bring about stress, shame and even panic. It should come as no surprise that the holiday season is often a time for relapse or exacerbation of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. Particularly in America, there is a weight stigma paired with an obsession with food and overindulgence that is the perfect recipe for developing a poor relationship with food. This is particularly concerning given that eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Food plays a large role in our everyday lives – from fuel to feelings – and is particularly brought to light during the holidays. While many factors contribute to an eating disorder's development or persistence, we can do our part to reduce the risk and make the holidays a manageable, dare I say enjoyable, experience for those struggling with disordered eating.

Most people know someone who is struggling or has struggled with an eating disorder. However, the secrecy that often surrounds the illness typically leaves friends and families in the dark. For this reason, it is important to put practices in place during the holidays – and every day – to avoid reinforcement of negative feelings or beliefs about body shape, weight and food.

As an eating disorder survivor and registered dietitian guiding patients through recovery, I have discovered that the following practices help provide a peaceful environment during the holidays. 

Focus on the Reason for the Season

While we all enjoy the food and beverages around the holiday season, this is not the primary reason for our celebration. Whether it be celebrating with immediate family, observing a religious belief or spreading resources and hope to others, we can all enjoy the holidays without focusing on the food. Emphasizing food – whether it be simply obsessing over your favorite dish or making a statement about planning to eat everything available – can make those with eating disorders begin to feel isolated. Let the delicious food be a bonus to all the other wonderful aspects of the holidays! 

Steer Clear of Food Policing

Unless a physician or dietitian has explicitly given you guidance regarding food for your safety (i.e., an allergy or medication interaction), all foods are permissible. Discussion of "good" food versus "bad" food only reinforces negative food beliefs, which increases guilt, thereby reducing the full enjoyment we can experience.

Similarly, pressuring others to try a specific food or eat more prevents them from listening to what their bodies truly desire. For those with an eating disorder, this pressure can also lead to increased stress when they are already struggling to simply participate in the meal. Even policing food for yourself – whether by action or verbalizing – can result in a loved one internalizing your belief. The holidays are a time for expressing compassion and gratitude to ourselves and others. Let's keep it that way!

Compliment the Important Things

Repetitive compliments regarding someone's appearance reinforces the belief that the way one looks is the most important thing about them. From statements about clothing and hair to weight loss or gain, someone always seems to have something to say. While many times these comments are said with good intentions, they may not be perceived that way. Remember, a person's perception is indeed their reality, whether it is your reality or not. 

On an even more serious note, someone may have engaged in hazardous behaviors to achieve their present appearance and a compliment on how they look further encourages those behaviors. Next time you want to compliment someone try, "I am always so glad to see you," "You seem happy!" or "You are an awesome person!" You can also help by redirecting other's comments when you notice them.

Be an Ally

One must recognize that an eating disorder is a medical and mental health disorder and not a choice. This simple fact opens the door for candid discussion and seeking appropriate treatment. For years, eating disorders have been misunderstood and people often struggled in isolation. Thankfully, research has grown, and we now have treatment programs along with plenty of resources for patients and caregivers, including right here in Tallahassee at the Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center. Your role as a friend or family member is to educate yourself, validate your loved one's feelings and encourage them in whatever stage of recovery they may be.

Changing the way we talk about food and weight will take a bit of practice as diet and weight have unfortunately become a large focus of our culture. However, this is quite possibly the most important practice you can put in place to help those struggling with disordered eating and improve your own relationship with food. We are all capable of evaluating the hidden messages in our statements and actions in a way that can provide freedom for ourselves and others. This holiday season, we can provide the gift of reducing the impact we have on those at risk for or struggling with an eating disorder. And if one holiday season everyone had freedom from the bondage of an eating disorder, that would be the best gift of all.

To learn more about mental health services available at the Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center, please visit TMH.ORG/MentalHealth or call 850-431-5100.

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