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How To Deal With Disordered Eating During The Holidays

by | Dec 16, 2023

There is a lot of food around during the holidays. There are also complex feelings and subliminal messages about bodies and the pending repentance in the New Year. Throw dysfunctional family dynamics in the mix and… yikes. Needless to say, if you’re dealing with an eating disorder, have an unhealthy relationship with food or your body, or are dealing with disordered eating, the holidays can be a difficult time. 

Holidays can be fraught with diet talk, relatives who will not shut up about how much they don’t need another piece of pie, need to lose weight, or how so-and-so really shouldn’t be getting seconds. 

Then there’s the person who eats ‘perfectly’ – skipping the stuffing, pie, and other delights, which makes everyone else feel the need to say things like, “You’re so good! No wonder you’re so thin! I wish I had your self-control.” This kind of talk is diet culture at a T.

Holidays Are Hard With Disordered Eating

All of this talk, while so normalized by diet culture, is harmful. It perpetuates disorder with food and body image and keeps people stuck in shame. That “perfect eater” may be dealing with an eating disorder. 

It’s upsetting to hear these comments at any point if you’re struggling with your body and food, but it can be more blatantly annoying and intolerable once you’ve pivoted away from the idea that you need to follow food rules. Those comments don’t feel ‘normal’ anymore. They feel triggering, harmful, and damaging. 

If you’ve been working with a non-diet dietitian, or doing the work on your own to leave diet culture behind, your hard work has likely changed the way you react to these comments. And that’s a good thing. That means you’re protecting your boundaries.

Disordered Eating Often Starts With Family

For many of us, our disordered relationships with food started at home. Mom talking about how disgusted she was with her body, dad going on Atkins 20 times & making the whole family yo-yo diet with him, or overhearing Grandpa denigrating fat people at the Christmas table.

A dislike of fat bodies, and all the food-fear that often follows is handed down from one generation to the next. We learn some bodies are better than others, and that fat is bad from the people we trust.

I’m not trying to throw you or your mom under the bus. This is often a well-meaning, but misguided attempt at protecting one’s kids from becoming part of the outsider group. She may not understand that scaring kids about staying thin can perpetuate eating disorders.

What Family Can Do To Prevent Eating Disorders

My potentially unpopular opinion on this: this is not showing real love. bell hooks says that love must include honesty, respect, and an intention to support one’s spiritual growth. Without those ingredients, it may be care, but it is not love. I’m sure plenty would disagree, but I think that if we help our children fit into a mold created by the patriarchy, then we are not showing them how to love themselves and their bodies as they are. 

And we could be feeding into diet culture and into the system that makes holidays so difficult for those with eating disorders.

It takes hard inner work to come to this place and it is much harder for some than others. But that doesn’t stop me from believing and fighting for it for ALL of us. 

But regardless, this misguided protection mechanism (if that’s what it is) does not do anyone any good. All it does is start the dieting cycle and mistrust of one’s body and appetite even younger. 

How Diets Cause Eating Disorders

Kids who are taught to focus on their weight are more likely to develop depression, binge eating, eating disorders, and to gain more weight over time, compared with kiddos who are allowed to just be and eat freely in the body they have.

Research also shows that hurtful comments from loved ones, especially family members, about a teenager’s body leads to lower self-esteem and disordered eating. So asking for boundaries from your family is 1000% a good idea.

It is normal for it to feel challenging to talk to your family about what you need them to do in order to support your food and body image journey. Even though it may feel challenging, asking family not to comment on your food can be important while dealing with an eating disorder during the holidays.

When Family Perpetuates Diet Culture

When Alex was 8 years old, her grandma gave her a girdle. By this time, she was already used to hearing her sweet, but misguided grandpa call his wife, her grandma, the girdle-giver, Dumbo. Alex told me that she used to feel like her body was not actually hers. It belonged to everyone else – her family, the patriarchy, society’s expectations. 

“I grew up in a family where the matriarchs were always trying to make sure I fit the thin, lady-like, desirable, aesthetically pleasing Latina woman stereotype. And at the same time always telling me to “be careful” because diabetes runs in my family. And then, confusingly, they’re also shoving food down my throat as a sign of love.

Food is a huge part of Latino culture. So there’s so much love and desire to feed others as a way to show love. But we’re also very vocal when someone gains weight.

“Llena, gorda, flaquita.” There is constant dialogue at family gatherings about who’s in what category and who changed categories. This all just made my body image horrible which fed into my disordered eating. I did not grow up learning to love my body. I just abused it with calorie restriction, and that makes me really sad.”

During the first month of our work together, Alex got engaged. At that time, she was in the trenches digging into her relationship with food and body, eating foods that scared her and giving herself permission to eat.

But the engagement freaked her out. She worried about what her family would think if she didn’t lose weight for her wedding. But even more, she did not want the next 8 months to be about trying to lose weight and all the chaos, stress, and falling into familiar patterns of binging and restricting. She wanted to learn to love her body as it was and figure out how to handle her family.

And y’all – she DID. She felt AMAZING at her wedding.. Alex did not diet one little bit in the year leading up to it. She worked on nourishing herself well, improving her connection with her body, and figuring out how to tell her family to shut up. 

How Alex Built Boundaries With Family

When I asked her what she discovered she could say to those ‘problematic’ family members, she took a direct, loving, and self-protective route. 

“When someone tries to push food on me now, when I’m full and just trying to listen to my body, I’m direct but gentle. “In a little bit. Thank you so much. That looks delicious. I’m just gonna take a little bite of yours.” Or “I do want it, I’ll get some a little later.” Or, “my stomach just can’t handle that right now.”

She finally realized she didn’t need to please anyone but herself and her body. And that was not unkind or unloving toward them and was extremely loving toward herself. 

This choice reverberated inward and reinforced the trust she was building in herself. 

But it took some time. 

“There was a whole blow up with my dad when I first had to remind him that I asked him to stop commenting on my food and body. He thought I was being too sensitive, but I stood my ground. I know you love me and that you’re concerned, but your comments are upsetting to me. Please trust that I am taking care of myself.”

Alex and partner at their wedding. eating disorder holidays

Mindset Tips For Eating Disorder Struggles At Holidays

If you have an eating disorder, holiday gatherings centered around food, can be really difficult. If holiday meals feel hard for you, here are a couple tips for your mindset leading up to the day. 

Ask for loving boundaries with your family

Have a loving conversation with the person who loves to comment on your body or what you’re eating. Let them know you know they love you and they aren’t trying to hurt you, but it would just be really nice if they could try and hold their tongue when they might be about to say something, even if it seems like a compliment. 

Don’t comment on my body – good or bad. 

Don’t comment on the food I’m eating – good or bad.

Please and thank you. 

In a New York Times article this week, the advice was given, “I’m not taking feedback about my body at this time”, and “I only discuss that with my doctor.”, which I also love. 

Don’t let your holiday meal be the first one of the day

Eat a good breakfast. PSA – a good breakfast is more than a piece of fruit or a protein shake. If you’re not ravenous when you get to the meal, you’re more likely to feel cool, calm, and collected when it’s time to eat. 

Allow yourself to eat whatever you want, but do it mindfully

Take a good look around at everything that is available. Get some of each thing you want, but do not take anything that doesn’t look awesome. If getting way too full is a habit for you, try just slowing down. Explore how to feel satisfied after eating. Don’t overly load your first plate, reminding yourself you can get seconds if you want. Take a 2 minute break, maybe go to the bathroom and when you get back, ask yourself how much more food you want to feel happy and satisfied. Definitely take home leftovers if you can. 

Use gratitude as you eat, no matter how difficult your relationship with food

Practice gratitude for the land the food was grown on, for the original inhabitants of this land, and for the people who prepared it. Remember that one meal, one day, or even one week of eating is not going to change your body, but it could bring you lots of joy.

If you’re struggling with disordered eating and are ready to find peace with food, your body, and your health, apply to join one of my programs in 2024. The Love Food Again program is perfect for those wanting community while they learn how to use intuitive eating and fuel their body without restriction. Enrollment is open through January 25, 2024 and we start January 28. Apply now!

About Emily

Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in Intuitive Eating, eating disorders, body image, women’s reproductive health, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps women+ find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her practice, values, and experience here.

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Hey there, I´m Emily

A non-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian, intuitive eating coach, and body image healer. Here on the blog, I focuses on exploring intuitive eating, gentle nutrition, the complex arena of body image and feminism, anti-oppression, and all the ways these things intersect. I want us all to be free to own our appetites, and our desires, and eat really, really well. 

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