Five questions you might have about Christmas with an eating disorder

Posted 10/12/2018

Our Helpline services will be open 4 – 8pm from 24 December to 1 January.

We know Christmas can be a difficult time for people with eating disorders. We talked to our Helpline Manager, Sam, about some of the common questions her team gets around this time of year, and her insights and tips for dealing with the challenges of Christmastime, whether you have an eating disorder or are supporting someone you care about.

1. All the food and talk of food is overwhelming – what can I do?

It’s almost impossible to get away from food at this time of year, and this along with encouragement by others to “indulge” can be stressful or upsetting. It may create additional pressure to eat, or cause increased worry about bingeing.

Changes to routine, whether one developed as part of the eating disorder or one that is helping you in recovery, can be difficult too. During Christmas Day and in the days around it, snacks may be more readily available, or foregone out of desire to “save ourselves for Christmas dinner”; people might eat at different times to when they usually would.

What might help?

  • Planning Christmas dinner in advance, or even having a practice meal before the day, can help. You can talk about your concerns and how to address them with your loved ones. Agreeing on what will be served, at what time, portion sizes and who will be there means you know what to expect, and don’t have to make decisions on the spot.
  • Some food could be kept away from the table – a laden-down table may increase anxiety. It might also be easier if meals are served away from the table – you may feel less “watched” if you’re having different food or portions.
  • If everyone else is serving themselves, however, it may be easier to sit next to someone supportive so you can copy their portion.
  • Distractions during the meal, like having music on or conversation that doesn’t involve food, can help.
  • The urge to binge, or to get rid of food eaten, is most likely to come in the hour or so after eating, so it’s best to be with others during this time. Distractions like opening presents or a jigsaw puzzle, game, or favourite film can help you take your mind off food, and can be planned beforehand.
  • Consider not sitting at the dining table for a long time after the meal has finished – you could continue the socialising away from the table.
  • If you’re supporting someone with an eating disorder, they may need encouragement if they’re struggling to eat. This can be done by quietly and sensitively saying something like: “I can see you’re really struggling, is there anything I can do to help you?” or “Would it help to talk about what’s troubling you?” Lots of people say that feeling rushed can increase anxiety; however, gentle, sensitive reminders about time can be helpful. 

2. How can I feel less worried about eating in front of other people?

Having people around who aren’t usually there can lead to worry about what they’ll think, or about routine being disrupted. This can increase anxiety around eating at a time that is already difficult. People who aren’t as familiar with the eating disorder might also feel nervous about what they should do or say.

What might help?

  • It can be helpful to give family and friends information to help them understand more about eating disorders and what someone with an eating disorder might find useful.
  • Knowing who will be there as part of planning the day can help you feel more prepared.
  • You could agree on a sign to discreetly show when you need support and encouragement, either during a meal or socially, e.g. playing with a tangle-toy/phone above the table.

3. I’m worried about the comments that people might make

Lots of talk around food at this time of year can be difficult to hear, and even well-meaning comments on what someone is eating or how they look may not be heard the way they’re intended, especially if they are or seem to be comparing you to how you looked previously. Intended compliments like “You’re looking well” might sound like a remark on weight, for example.

What might help?

  • It can help to have someone tell family members and friends who know about the eating disorder not to comment on your appearance, or what/how much food you’re eating. In fact, it is best to actively avoid talking about dieting, or making comments about anyone’s weight, appearance, or food intake. 

4. What if I can’t take part in some festive traditions?

Perhaps you usually go out for Christmas dinner and the eating disorder means it’s best to stay home, or maybe you usually have edible stocking fillers that you’re concerned about this year. Lots of people might feel sad or guilty about having to break with tradition, or struggle with the expectation that everyone should constantly have fun and be happy at Christmastime.

What might help?

  • It can help to talk through things like traditional stocking fillers and whether they should be part of Christmas this year before Christmas Day, and you could discuss whether any of them could be used as part of a meal plan, for example.
  • If you’re supporting someone else, it will be helpful to remember the level of anxiety people with an eating disorder can feel, and to act in a supportive, non-judgemental, and reassuring way.

5. How can I get away from it all for a while?

We all need downtime sometimes, and this might especially be the case if you’ve spent a lot of time surrounded by food and people. It’s good to discuss this with the people you’ll be spending the day with. Being on your own might be helpful for you, but if there are worries about bingeing or purging, you can still have time to “recharge” with other people around.

What might help?

  • It can help to plan in time when there will be fewer people around.
  • Watching a favourite TV show or film, playing a game, or going for a short, easy walk together can be good ways to destress.

Not everyone is the same, and things that some people find really useful may cause others to feel anxious or stressed. But planning together, talking about concerns, and figuring out strategies that work for you and the people you’ll be spending Christmas with can help the day go much more smoothly and ensure you can still have a positive Christmas with your loved ones. And if you or anyone else is struggling, remember our Helpline is open 4 – 8pm from 24 December to 1 January.

From all here at Beat, we wish you a peaceful Christmas.