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The festive period can come with extra challenges for those affected by eating disorders, and the heightened focus on food can lead to anxieties and negative thinking. It’s important to identify and talk openly about what things may cause stress or worry – for the person recovering from an eating disorder, and also for those supporting them in recovery. Agreeing things in advance can make things a little easier on the day. Here are some tips that others have found useful in the past.

Patience

Be kind on yourself and stay away from rigid expectations. Keep any plans flexible. Be aware that the eating disorder may use this time as an opportunity to strengthen its voice. Think about what you might do in this situation to stop the thoughts from taking over. Eating disorders don’t take a Christmas holiday, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or not enjoying every minute of Christmas remember that it’s not your fault. If you find yourself struggling with a meal remember that you can take a break, and come back to it when you’re ready.

Safe, supportive environment

If the person you are supporting needs to take a break from a meal, it may help if you can distract them from negative thoughts. Some people may want time alone. Remember that ALL foods (unless poisonous or allergenic) have a place in a healthful diet, so try to
stay away from ideas of “good” and “bad” foods. Christmas is not the time to worry about less nutritious foods, it’s only a few days. Limit things that may cause stress or anxiety to the person in recovery – this means putting away any meal-replacements, diet foods, weighing scales etc, and staying away from discussions around food, health and weight.

Try not to control/comment on food eaten. This well-meaning approach can actually increase the urge to binge for those with BED. Similarly try not to comment if the person you’re supporting eats less than what you expected. Try to focus on helping them to feel safe and comfortable. For many in recovery, non-food chat around the table can be a helpful source of distraction.

Wider family and friends may be pleased to see that someone in recovery looks healthy and well and may want to comment on their appearance. However, this isn’t always a helpful thing for the person to hear as it may focus them on weight. It can be good to advise family/fiends about this beforehand. There is no evidence that “January detox” diets do anything for the body except starve it of essential
nutrients. Talk of this is not helpful for eating disorder recovery and resembles the disordered eating patterns that those in recovery are trying to overcome. Similarly, it’s best not to talk about any food- based New Year’s Resolutions.

Planning ahead

It may not be possible to follow your usual routine and meal plan over the days of Christmas. Think about what it might look like if you were to find a balance between following the plan and enjoying yourself, and keep this new plan as flexible as possible. In the run up to the festive period it can be helpful to find some meal ideas that everyone agrees on beforehand.

Plan ahead with “difficult foods” to help reduce negative thoughts. For example, ask yourself “how many chocolates would be good to enjoy, without making me anxious?” Having a range rather than a set number will help avoid rigid thinking. If you feel anxious after eating remind yourself that you know this amount is ok. Your range is a guide to help you and not a goal – if you go over/under don’t be hard on yourself.

It can also be a good idea to think about the portion sizes of the Christmas meal and dessert ahead of time, and to involve family members with this for support. Communicating with families can be tough if someone is struggling with eating disorder thoughts and/or behaviours. You could make a plan together about how you would like to communicate. For example, some families like to plan a certain time when they will discuss any issues. Another idea could be to use a colour system, where the person in recovery leaves a green card outside their
bedroom door for when they feel they are doing well, a yellow card for when they are struggling a bit, and a red card for when they are finding things very difficult.

And finally, rediscovering the social enjoyment of food is part of the recovery process. Depending on the stage of recovery, this Christmas may be an opportunity to help foster a healthier relationship with food, with the support and compassion of family and friends.

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