5 tips to help manage eating disorders during the festive period

Trigger warning: Eating disorders, descriptions/definitions 

Types of eating disorders

The term eating disorder (ED) covers various mental health conditions. Well-known ones are:

Anorexia nervosa – trying to control your weight by not eating enough food, exercising too much, or doing both

Bulimia – losing control over how much you eat and then taking drastic action not to put on weight

Binge eating disorder – eating large portions of food until you feel uncomfortably full

Less talked about are OSFED’s (other specified feeding or eating disorders) and ARFID’s (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder)

OSFED - A person may have some symptoms of eating disorders but not meet a diagnosable threshold for anorexia or bulimia.

ARFID - When a person has complex feelings about food that do not involve weight or appearance. Ex. a dislike of the smell or texture of food, eating triggers disturbing memories like choking or being violently sick. 

Supporting loved ones: It is not as simple as 'just eating'

If you are supporting someone with an eating disorder over the festive period, it is important to remember - eating disorders are mental health issues that manifest in controlled behaviours with food. Telling someone to ‘just eat’ is stigmatising and damaging.

Often people with eating disorders live in fear of disappointing family members and are highly critical of themselves. It is important to work with someone living with an eating disorder rather than trying to manage or pressuring them to change their behaviour. Ask them what they need to get through this time of year.

They may not know straight away how you can support them, but by asking the question, you open up that conversation and show that you are able to listen and willing to support in a meaningful way. When working with families I always suggest doing activities that don't centre around food. Going for walks, trips to the cinema or movie nights, board games are all good ideas and help distract from food while still being quality time. 

The holidays

The festive period can be difficult for people with eating disorders. Whether you’re lighting a Menorah, putting up a tree, or making Kaju Katli, food and the traditions that accompany it are always close by. Other factors can make it difficult too. Seeing families, returning to childhood homes, old neighbourhoods, the change in routine - they all contribute to stress, complicate relationships with food, and destabilise coping strategies.

Five tips that could help you manage an eating disorder over the festive period

There are no quick fixes. Tragically, EDs have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. However, like all illnesses, it can be managed, and people recover. There is help out there and I have included further signposting at the end of this blog. 

Here are some suggestions of what may help during this festive period:

1. Plan your meals

Know what you will be eating ahead of time. Talk to loved ones about meals, ask to help plan meals, and agree on what foods will be prepared. Know the times, days and negotiate portion sizes. Try and plan everything ahead of time to avoid surprises or make on-the-spot decisions. If you’re spending the holidays with someone different, ask them what you can expect and how plans may be adapted to support you.

2. Know when you may be vulnerable

Borrowing from alcohol and narcotics recovery programmes, use BLAST as a way of assessing what’s going on for you emotionally. If you feel vulnerable to ED behaviours, ask yourself if you’re:

B - Bored
L - Lonely
A - Angry
S - Stressed
T - Tired

Once you’ve identified how you feel, figure out what you can do. Go for a walk, call a trusted friend, do something that requires concentration or adjust your sleep routine.

3. Mealtime buddy

Figure out who you feel most comfortable with during meal times and ask to sit next to them. Mealtimes can feel entirely out of your control, but sitting next to the safest person may help you feel more comfortable. 

4. Have an ally

Find an ally, either in your family or outside and ask them to be on standby, should you need to reach out. Discuss ahead of time the best way to do this. You could arrange to talk in person or on the phone at certain times. Agree when they will have their phone near them for text message support. Stay connected to people who support you and can help get you through.

5. If you’re eating disorder is a secret...

Many people living with an ED will be doing so in secret. A person’s appearance is not an indicator of whether they are struggling. I would always advise asking for professionals and trusted friends and family support. However, if you are not ready for that yet, know where you can get support ahead of time. 

Eating Disorder holiday helplines

Eating Disorder helpline over Christmas: 24th December - 3rd January. 4pm - midnight.

  • England: 0808 801 0677
  • Scotland: 0808 801 0432
  • Northern Ireland: 0808 801 0434
  • Wales: 0808 801 0433

Helplines/email support further afield (check websites for Christmas opening hours.)

The Republic of Ireland: 
01 2107906 or alex@bodywhys.ie

1800 33 4673 or support@thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

Final thoughts

An eating disorder can be one of the loneliest illnesses a person can live with. The internal voice that makes food so complicated can be incredibly critical and isolating. I want you to know that you are not alone. There are thousands of people living with and have recovered from this illness. Help will be out there when you are ready to take it. 

Further signposting

One of the UK's leading ED charities with support for young people and adults:

Or visit the NHS' guide, Advice for parents and carers.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London SE1 & SE15

Written by Jeremy Sachs

London SE1 & SE15

I am an Integrative Psychotherapist and Counsellor. I am trained in multiple models of psychological care so I can respond to your needs in a flexible way. I specialise in trauma recovery, young people, the queer community and long term health conditions. I see individuals and couples. Get in touch for a free and friendly consultation.

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