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The Talk: Diets and disorders at Christmas

7 mins read

TRIGGER WARNING: Eating Disorders

I love Christmas as much as the next person. I listen to way too much Michael Bublé, and I watch far too many cheesy Hallmark movies. This year I had my Christmas tree up before December even began. I love Christmas, but it’s not an easy time.

Christmas can be a difficult period for someone struggling with an eating disorder. Food can seem inescapable at this time of year, from the turkey-talk in the Tesco aisles to the pre-festivity fasts that plague my newsfeed. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed.

I’m excited for Christmas but there are also things I’m anxious about. I’m scared that when my tummy is full and satisfied after a delicious meal, my jeans will feel too tight and I’ll feel too fat. I’m worried that the next day my stomach will be bloated from all the yummy treats I’ve allowed myself, and I’ll feel too fat. I’m cautious that a relative or friend may make a comment that I “look well” now that I’m back from university, and my brain will say: “they mean fat”.

But of course, these feelings aren’t just exclusive to Christmas day. I have these thoughts on most days. I had them yesterday, I had them the day before that, I had them last week. But I made it past those days, so I can make it past Christmas day. Not only can I make it past Christmas day, but I can enjoy it too.

I think there are three stages in which you can support someone struggling with an eating disorder on Christmas day. There’s before dinner, during, and there’s after.

Changes to routine can be challenging for someone struggling with disordered eating. They might be worried about when they’re eating, who they’re eating with, the table set-up.

While it may be your initial instinct to keep someone with an eating disorder away from the preparations for Christmas dinner, I think in some ways including them can be really helpful. Making them aware of what time dinner is scheduled is a good way to start. But you could also let them help set the table; that way they can decide who they are most comfortable sitting beside at the meal. It can be really encouraging to be around someone with a positive attitude towards food when you’re struggling, or maybe even someone you can mirror you eating off of.

During Christmas dinner, it’s less about what is done and more about what it said. Conversation and background noise can be a really good distraction, but there are some chat topics to steer away from. It’s best to avoid comments on each other’s eating habits, for example: “someone’s hungry”, as it can deter the person struggling from eating as much. Equally, however, you should refrain from comments on how little you or someone else is eating, such as: “I skipped breakfast to have room for this”. This is because it may make a person suffering from an eating disorder feel as though they are eating too much in comparison to those around them.

I think that one of the most burdensome difficulties of having an eating disorder is how competitive they are. I remember going out for a meal with friends and them talking about how they hadn’t eaten all day, and suddenly I didn’t like the look of my food in front of me. I couldn’t have a higher calorie intake than those around me, so if they were skipping meals, I needed to as well. I had to be the best at starving myself.

When it comes to Christmas, these feelings of guilt and shame can be magnified for someone with an eating disorder. The persuasion to indulge on a few extra snacks can become the urge to binge, and regret of this binge can turn to restriction in the New Year.

A gathered meal can fuel the competitiveness of an eating disorder and so I encourage you to ditch the diet talk at the dinner table. Personally, I think diet culture all year round is toxic but I’m not telling you what to do. Just listen to your body.

With dinner out of the way, it may feel like the worries of someone struggling with an eating disorder are over. This, however, is a misconception. The pressures to purge may feel at their highest after a meal. It’s good to have a family activity planned for afterwards, instead of lingering around the dinner table. Maybe a board game or a movie, or if their recovery plan allows it, a short walk can calm the thoughts of over-exercising to burn off what’s just been eaten.

I know it sounds like a lot. You may be worried that what you do, or what you say could cause harm but don’t let the fear of being wrong make you silent. Eating disorders are incredibly isolating and although socialising may be hard for someone suffering, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to be there, or they don’t want to talk to you. They may be quieter than usual or need to take a break from it all but they appreciate the support.

These tips aren’t going to make a Christmas miracle, but I think they will help. I recommend having a look at the BEAT website. Their helplines are also open 4 – 8pm from 24 December to 1 January.

I don’t promise recovery will be easy, but it’s worth it. You deserve to enjoy Christmas day and every day. There’s so much more to the festive season that you’ll miss if you’re worried about what you’re eating. You deserve that hot chocolate.

Featured image credit: thespinoff.co.nz

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