Eating Disorders and the Holidays by Irene Marie Erckert, Ph.D.

With the holidays quickly approaching, food is at the front and center of every tradition, creating stress for millions of people. Most are already thinking about how much weight they might gain from holiday eating and how they will lose the weight in the New Year.

For those suffering from eating disorders, these concerns are even more paramount. The overabundance of food along with heightened holiday stress, busier schedules, and difficult family dynamics often precipitate panic and the potential for lapses in recovery is greater.

In addition, perfectionistic thinking, which characterizes those with eating disorders, results in high anxiety with any deviation in food plan or goals. Deciding that they have “failed”sufferers then revert to their unhealthy food patterns in an effort to manage these bad feelings and the cycle continues.

Psychologists with a specialty in eating disorders are experts in helping sufferers learn effective coping skills to make navigation of the holidays a little easier.

Treatment entails monitoring overeating, restricting and/or purging as these behaviors occur. Monitoring assists with identifying feelings and situations that trigger problematic eating.

Another aspect of treatment includes modifying perfectionistic beliefs that maintain disordered eating. An example of an unhealthy attitude is, “If I have one cookie I will gain weight.”

This can be replaced by a more balanced belief such as “One cookie is part of normal eating and won’t make me gain weight.”

Finally, psychologists help sufferers develop new coping skills to replace unhealthy eating patterns and manage anxiety.

The following strategies can help individuals who suffer from eating disorders successfully navigate the holidays:

1.Plan regular meals throughout the day .

If you restrict in order to save calories for the big holiday meal, physiological deprivation may lead to overeating at the holiday meal. Inquire about the menu ahead of time and write down what you will eat in advance.

2.View all foods as acceptable in moderate portions.

Assigning “good food””bad food”labels makes it impossible to eat a rich caloric holiday food and feel good about it. Even these foods in moderate portions are part of normal eating.

3.If you panic because you feel full, tell yourself that it was ok to eat what you did and one meal will not make you fat.

Remind yourself that this is part of “normal holiday eating”.

4.4. Work on being flexible during the holidays. If your food plan is altered, tell yourself that it is ok to deviate from your plan instead of avoiding food or bingeing afterwards. Take a holiday from perfectionism and self-criticism.

5. Avoid the scale and calorie counting as they will distract you from the true meaning of the holiday.

6. Discuss your anticipation of the holiday with a support person. Think ahead to possible comments that may activate negative thoughts about yourself and trigger disordered eating. Practice possible responses to these comments. Plan to talk to a support person or exit the situation if necessary.

7. Focus on people and relationships rather than on your body and food. Think of parties as avenues for meaningful connection with others rather than as places of conflict with food.

8. Consider choosing a loved one who has a positive relationship with food to be your reality check with food. When highly anxious, you can ask this trusted person if your serving sizes are inadequate, sufficient, or excessive.

9. Talk to a trusted support person if you do overeat or restrict at the holiday meal. Inform that person in advance that you may need to reach out to them. When struggling, take a walk with your support person to calm yourself and then map out a reasonable approach to food upon return.

10. Avoid overscheduling yourself around the holiday to decrease your stress level and prevent lapses due to overscheduling. Prioritize events and give yourself permission to skip a holiday gift exchange or party if it may compromise your recovery. Save some time to relax, reflect and enjoy the small things. Managing your schedule may be your means of staying in control of your eating.

11. Allow yourself to have fun with family and friends. Remind yourself that rigid focus on food or weight will stand in your way of enjoying your relationships.

12. Be compassionate with yourself if you binge, purge, or restrict during this time. One step backwards does not equal a failed recovery and every small effort is a step in the direction of recovery. Celebrate each success no matter how big or small.

13. Most of all, allow yourself to have fun with family and friends during the holiday times. Remind yourself that rigidly focusing on food or body concerns will stand in your way of enjoying relationships with loved ones.

In summary, the stress and focus on food associated with the holiday season can make coping with an eating disorder challenging.

Approaching the season with a flexible mindset and taking time to relax are keys to enjoying this time with family and friends.

If you’re eating disorder leads you to withdraw from others and takes away the fun of the holiday by creating adherence to rigid rules, seek the assistance of a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders to help you navigate the holiday season and beyond.

Dr. Irene Marie Erckert, is in Private Practice in Newtown, PA and Lawrenceville, NJ