Finding Balance: Navigating Body Image and Disordered Eating during the Holidays 

By Paige Sutula, MA, MFT-C

As the holiday season approaches, it becomes more and more apparent just how food-centered our culture can be. For people who struggle with body image or disordered eating, Thanksgiving can be a challenging time. Not only is Thanksgiving centered around indulging in large quantities of food, but there can also be challenging social dynamics to navigate. Is Aunt Karen going to ask if I’m sure I want that second helping of mashed potatoes? Is grandma going to tell me to watch my figure? 

Here are some tangible steps you can take to tackle thanksgiving without the dread and anxiety of a food-centric day.

Intentional Preparation

It is crucial to have a realistic plan going into Thanksgiving. Do you know who is going to be there? Oftentimes, Thanksgiving is a holiday where extended family and friends come together. While this can be a joyous occasion, it can also bring a lot of unknowns. Find out the specifics of the day- who is going to be there? What time are we eating? Once you have figured out the logistics- take a moment to envision what will set you up for success. 

Quick Tip: Take a moment to reflect or journal: What themes or feelings have past Thanksgivings brought up for you? What boundaries can you set with yourself or family members to make the day more enjoyable? 

Build a Support System

If you are struggling with disordered eating, you may feel isolated and alone in your struggles. Seeing a table covered in food can be triggering. Do you have someone you can confide in to help you navigate this day? Reaching out and sharing your struggles can be scary, but it can also allow you to receive the support you need to navigate a difficult day. If you do not have someone to talk to, there are also free hotlines that can provide support (find them in the resources section below). 

Quick tip: Create a code word or signal that can clue in your support system if you need extra help. “Orange” can mean- “hey, this is overwhelming me. Can we go get some fresh air and decompress?” Having a plan in place before you go can help increase your confidence and ability to take on the day!

Mindful Eating Strategies 

As your eyes glance over all of the tasty dishes and treats, you feel your heart race and thoughts overwhelm you. Do you get a little bit of everything? Do you try to stick to the “right” choices? It is crucial to remember that one day of eating will not change any part of your body. Intuitive eating is something that takes time and practice, but it is never too late to start. Approach the Thanksgiving spread by choosing the foods you desire. Slow down and pay attention to the texture of each item, and savor the taste. 

Quick tip: Before you begin to eat, rate your hunger on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being absolutely ravenous, and 10 being stuffed past the point of comfort. Check in with yourself every 5-10 minutes to evaluate your level of satisfaction and fullness. When you notice yourself reaching a 5-6, take a few moments to pause before reevaluating. 

Coping with Triggers

Triggers can and will come up. Whether it’s an insensitive comment from a family member, or a judgmental thought that pops into your head, these triggers can quickly send you into a spiral. The best way to handle triggers is to be proactive. Spend time reflecting on potential triggers that may arise during the holidays, and brainstorm coping strategies. For example, if Aunt Karen goes on her soapbox about the latest fad diet she is on, what can you say that will make it clear you do not welcome this discussion? Humor is a great way to lighten the mood while also making it known that you do not wish to continue the conversation. Being prepared for a few scenarios that could arise will allow you to feel more comfortable in the moment when things come up. 

Quick Tip: We can’t avoid all triggers, but we can be prepared. Have a few one-liners in your pocket to change food or body image related topics. Have your support person on standby with a code word if you need a quick out during tense moments. 

Self-Compassion 

While Hollywood depicts the holidays as a time of joy and connection, they can also be difficult for people. With tense family dynamics, and food-centric events in a diet culture world, it makes sense that you struggle to lean into the “joyous” celebrations. Allow yourself to feel any and all emotions that come up. Instead of pushing down feelings of sadness or frustration, instead acknowledge them and ask yourself what you need in that moment. 

Quick Tip: Sometimes, we need to show extra love and kindness to ourselves. Try wrapping your arms around yourself and give yourself a hug. Remind yourself that the holidays can be challenging, and you are doing your best. 

Reflection

It is important to know that you are not alone. It is believed that about 9% of Americans will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime. If you are feeling like you can’t even enjoy the holidays or be in the moment with your loved ones due to feeling preoccupied by worry and fear surrounding food, therapy can be a wonderful place to receive support and learn the tools that could allow you to live in the moment and enjoy the holiday festivities without guilt. 

Resources 

If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please know there is hope. Below are several resources that can help provide information, resources, and treatment options. 

https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support

https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/eating-disorder-hotlines

https://anad.org/get-help

References 

Deloitte Access Economics. (2020, June). The Social and Economic Cost of Eating Disorders in the United States of America: A Report for the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders and the Academy for Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/striped/report-economic-costs-of-eating-disorders/

Levine MP. Loneliness and eating disorders. J Psychol. 2012 Jan-Apr;146(1-2):243-57. doi: 10.1080/00223980.2011.606435. PMID: 22303623.

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