A Guide to the Holidays with Eating Issues – by @jcstaff_
The festive season, yuletide, the holidays.
Days filled with tidings of “comfort and joy.”
A time to “eat, drink and be merry.”
Central to all of the celebrations, partying and gift-bestowing is food.
Food and drink. Food and drink in excessive abundance.
For most, this is the time of year that even those who normally declare “No, thank you – I’m being good” will be tempted and often succumb. Succumb to what, you ask? To partaking in what might appear to be the dark side, the naughty-food camp. This approach towards food is implying is that we must not enjoy the treat foods, that they are there as sinful temptation, and that eating unhealthily is bad. So perhaps applying that theory, then not eating is good….?
It starts to get complicated, as we know.
Now imagine the holiday season living with an eating disorder. Trying to get through each day with a mental illness or the remnants of one, which is keyed into everything that passes your lips. There are many people who were diagnosed with and treated for eating disorders years ago, who appear healthy today but still have the leftover behaviours from those grim days of being in the grip of anorexia or bulimia. I include myself in this category, having recovered from life-threatening anorexia three decades ago, and yet still living with anorexic tendencies to this day. Beyond this, there are countless people who have never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but whose eating is skewed or influenced by the constant pressures to look a certain way, and all the fucked-up messages society impresses on us about our bodies, and our weight.
Living with eating disorder tendencies during the holiday season, November to January, is exceptionally challenging. At times it may feel impossible, trying to manage social occasions and not have a meltdown or eat too much/too little.
This morning, I began thinking about the days ahead and what strategies I have developed over the years to keep my eating and exercise on an even keel during the holidays. This next point is super important: although we may be surrounded by people commenting about laissez-faire eating, and alluding to getting back on track with a healthier diet in the new year, those with disordered eating patterns may not manage this temporary diet, psychologically. Eating out of the ordinary, and indeed, out of one’s comfort zone may set off a string of reactions, like a fishtailing car which rapidly swings out of control.
Now, I am not clinically trained, just merely someone who has tried over the years to find ways to ensure my eating does not get in a bigger mess during the festive period. The following tips may be of no help whatsoever, and if not, perhaps you can grab a notepad and create your own list which are more accessible for you? The main thing is to acknowledge that this can be an extra tricky time of year to navigate for those of us with a history of eating disorders. With that in mind, having some tactics to draw upon can help us avoid self-sabotage, downward spirals and extra anxiety.
Tips for Holiday Eating
1. Think ahead about guilt. Those without eating issues will be able to cope with eating a mince pie and the guilt afterwards. “I’ve earned this!” they might convince themselves. They will make it look easy. Then when we try to have one, it sets off the guilt alarm which can cause urges to purge in whatever our choice method may be. Those who have used purging methods know how addictive they are and how difficult it can be to stop. So, on reflection, unless we feel totally cool about eating the mince pie, it may cause us less hassle to skip it and have a clementine instead.
2. Bowing to pressure from those around us, trying to encourage us to enjoy the food might feel the better alternative to the shame we experience around our restrictive eating, but again, it can cause us a raft of problems. Those close to us will understand we don’t need pressuring to partake. The holidays are about so much more than food. Feel okay to say “I ate earlier” if it saves us trying to contain our fear as we eat a thick, calorific slice of Christmas cake complete with marzipan and icing.
3. Drink lots of water. More than usual. Carbonated spring water is even better because it will make us feel full, and perhaps even a little bloated, but it is just water – no calories! This can help stave off the nibblies, so we feel less likely to graze on whatever tasty fare is sitting out on the coffee table.
4. Some of the trouble is that it’s a really busy time of year, and harder to stay in our routine. Mealtimes may be delayed, so it is easy to grab a treat as they are all around us, from pumpkin spice flavoured coffee drinks, to shortbread cookies. Plan ahead, stick to what we know, take snacks with us. Fruit in the car. Crackers in your handbag, grab a cereal bar and a diet cola at the petrol station. Whatever. It’s best to not rely on others to provide food choices we feel comfortable with.
5. Check in with healthy friends who have an admirably balanced attitude towards food and exercise. What are they eating? Follow their example. A friend of mine who is health-aware, thin and fit had a bag of dates one day and offered me one. Now, I buy them to keep in the fridge as a snack because I trust her dietary choices.
6. This might be a time of year to legitimise letting your exercise becoming a little obsessive. Make sure you ring-fence that time for yourself every day. Prioritise it. Normally, we do not want to let our exercise schedule run our lives, but by skipping our regular exercise at this time of year, food and eating can seem even more daunting. I go out for a run on Christmas day around 9.30am. My family support me and understand it is important to enable me to enjoy the day and have some Christmas dinner with them.
7. Be mindful of alcohol. There are two main issues with this – firstly the calories in the drinks. Secondly, once we have had a drink or two, our judgement starts to weaken. This could cause us to eat more than normal, drink too much or feel tempted to purge.
8. Late-night eating can be stressful – parties and entertaining can mean eating at different times, and later than usual, which can wreak havoc with our very sensitive bodies that are used to probably a generally inflexible time-table. Where possible, stick to routine. If we normally have salad for dinner, then have salad for dinner. Even if we are going out to a party where there will be food. Everyone will be too busy enjoying their egg nog to notice what we eat or don’t eat!
9. Use a side plate, small bowl or ramekin to have portion sizes which we feel safer with. If there is a bowl of nuts or snacks on the table, and we end up eating a few handfuls, it might feel anxiety-provoking. Instead, get a little dish and put a portion in which feels suitable. Being able to visually quantify how much we have can help pre-empt us feeling stressed about it later.
10. The holiday season is full of excitement, anticipation, socialising and other aspects. As well, it can feel overwhelming, nerve-shredding and even depressing for some, for a multitude of reasons. I remind us of all this because bearing that in mind, it is no time to try and work on improving our disordered eating habits. Let’s stick to what we know, avoid pressure from others to over-indulge, focus on our time with loved ones and the all the pretty sparkling lights.
So to sum up, it may help to use an analogy. Picture our disordered eating as a sensitive little child who we are tasked with looking after throughout the holiday season. The child will have tantrums, feel distressed, and begin to lash out if they are put in situations they feel unfamiliar with. The best thing we can do for them to keep the peace, is to give them choices they are familiar with and help them to feel content. There is a new year on the horizon which will be full of many festive-free months. This will provide ample time to address any eating issues if you feel the need to do so. Who knows? Maybe next year, some of us will consume a mince pie washed down with a glass of Bailey’s without so much as even a flicker of panic. There is always hope!
Merry Christmas and love to all for 2020
ANAD American National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders