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How To Support Friends & Loved Ones in Eating Disorder Recovery During the Holidays

The holiday season is a time for friends, family and communities to gather together and celebrate. Most often, these celebrations are gathered around the table (and more often than not super focused on the food on it) and that can be a complicated and stressful for anyone. But when you’re already living with an eating disorder or in recovery, it can be especially difficult to navigate the high-pressured, food-centric season without a triggering or emotionally trying experience. 

(Editor’s Note: Given the nature of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., officials and health experts are discouraging in-person gatherings. While that can lessen the stress of some of the food-related issues connected with this holiday, we understand that there will still be challenges for people wrestling with food, health and their bodies during quarantine.)

“The holiday season is like a landmine of triggers for people recovering from disordered eating. Some key challenges include the ubiquity of fear foods, the stress of the season, close proximity to family and the change in routine due to travel or holiday plans,” Jessie Moore, blogger at Unicorn Love (formerly CakeSpy) who frequently writes about her experiences with eating disorder recovery tells SheKnows. 

Becky Carpentier, a licensed mental health counselor and eating disorder clinician who runs @Recipe4Recovery on Instagram, has been in recovery for about a decade. She tells SheKnows that the holiday season came just a few short months after her initial diagnosis — so she’s personally and professional familiar with the challenges of this time of year.

“For many people in recovery, the holidays bring up a lot of emotions and anxieties. The holidays for many of us means seeing family — often people we don’t see all the time and meals/desserts that are also not around all year long,” she says. “Many of my clients struggle with seeing people that don’t often see them and anticipating comments about what they are eating/how much, making comments about their body of any caliber or how they look and not knowing how to answer questions about what they are up to/how their progress is going.”

If someone you love is in recovery, here’s some advice on how to be a good ally to them during the holiday season. 

Be understanding of their boundaries. 

“I would say my biggest advice that I give my clients and practice myself are boundaries and coping ahead. Don’t feel like this year it would be helpful to your recovery to go to your grandmother’s home who is actively dieting and constantly commenting on people’s bodies? Don’t,” Carpentier says. “I know that sounds blunt and will be difficult, but your well being and feelings are valid and matter and especially when we are new to recovery we need to protect the process and have our own back by setting boundaries.”

Obviously, boundary-setting with your family or friends can be a challenge in every part of your life — so, if you have someone trying to set these boundaries and do that good work, why not help them out by respecting their decisions and helping your other family and friends get it too. Do what you can to be an ally to them in that difficult process.

De-center food, when you can. 

With all the food-based events in such a rapid-fire few weeks, there’s going to be no shortage of food-filled, potentially triggering events for your loved one at this time of year. If you’re looking to spend time with someone in recovery but aren’t required to make it a food-centric event, feel free to consider other creative ways to celebrate.

“I’ve had friends who have asked if I want to get together, and specifically offered up a non-food related activity,” Moore says. “I love this, because it allows me to connect with them and take food worries out of the equation.” 

You can go caroling or volunteer somewhere or maybe try walking or driving around looking at beautiful holiday lights around your neighborhood— try and find a different way to get in the holiday spirit, if that’s something your loved one might need. New traditions can be an exciting and special thing you can create together. 

And, of course, ask them what they need.

This can be challenging and vulnerable for anyone (and requires you getting a read on those boundaries your loved one is already setting when it comes to talking about their recovery). But if you make yourself a safe person to talk to about what they need and how you can support them, it’ll be easier to zero in on specific things you can do to help. 

“People who are struggling might have some specific things that would be most helpful to them, and there’s not a one size fits all way to support everyone struggling,” Carpentier says. 

Put a moratorium on diet talk. 

This might feel like a no-brainer, but it can be difficult to do across a crowded party or gathering with a lot of different relatives or friends itching to talk about their ketogenic meal prepping or cult-y fitness club. 

“It’s seemingly everywhere, from WTF-worthy yoga class promotions saying things like ‘burn off the Thanksgiving Turkey on Black Friday!’ to family or friends groaning about how many Christmas cookies they ate to co-workers talking about weight loss resolutions for the new year. Around the holidays, it can feel like everyone has an eating disorder,” Moore says. “People generally don’t realize how damaging comments like ‘I’ve got to exercise after eating all these Christmas cookies’ can be to someone in recovery.” 

Especially if someone is prone to giving unsolicited diet, exercise or body commentary or moralizing foods as “good” or “bad” things to be worked off, be sure to sidebar with them and (politely) let them know that it isn’t gonna fly. 

“Here’s a tip: don’t talk about someone’s weight, especially if they are in recovery. Even if you think it sounds positive…keep your comments to yourself,” Moore says. “I’ve had people say things like ‘but I’m your relative, I should be able to say this!’ Sorry, but no. You’re not. Stop. Additionally, don’t comment on what or how much someone is eating. You don’t know how easy or hard it is for them to eat it, and bringing attention to it probably isn’t going to make it easier.”

Carpentier agrees that nixing the diet talk is a great first step and adds that, given the cultural approach to diet and body talk, it’s not easy. “Being aware of this and wanting to be supportive to the person you know who is struggling is amazing, and that alone is huge! You may say something that is triggering or upsetting without any ill intent, and it happens. All you can do is apologize and continue to work on learning how to support your loved one,” she says. “If you want to encourage them, help redirect others who might be making unhelpful comments, and maybe suggest a game during dinner or have questions prepared for each person to answer to keep the conversation engaged/not leaving room for the unhelpful things.” 

Put away the scale. 

A simple way to make a space safer and more inviting for someone in recovery? Put your bathroom scale away. Even if its just in a cabinet, a closet or hidden in your shower, making sure it’s not just sitting out there can lead to one less potentially triggering encounter. 

“This may seem strange or small but it can be so helpful and important,” Carpentier says. “Many folks in recovery can become very fixated on their weight and struggle with a lot of anxiety surrounding it. Many times those in treatment don’t know their weight, so not having a scale eliminates the risk of them stepping on the scale and possibly throwing off their day.” 

Do some reading on your own. 

Carpentier says there’s tons of great resources out there for people who want to be an ally to the people they care about who are in recovery. While everyone’s individual needs and boundaries will be different, getting some baseline knowledge from experts is a great way to calmly and lovingly be in your loved one’s corner without putting all the pressure of educating others on them (they’ve got enough to worry about!) 

“Wanting to learn ways to support your loved one is already a big step from remaining unaware and potentially harmful,” Carpentier says. “The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has some great resources on their website as well as a parent toolkit to help educate those supporting someone on this journey.”

And, ultimately, try to understand how complicated Eating Disorders can be. 

An estimated 30 million Americans struggle with eating disorders, Carpentier explains, and many people don’t realize that their eating habits are disordered or don’t have access to resources, information or help to navigate it: ”Eating disorders affect people of all races, genders and body types. You can not tell the degree of an eating disorder by looking at someone or by their body type.” 

“One thing I would love for the world to know about eating disorders is that, while the food/body image aspect is the thought process/behaviors those who struggle present with, it is a symptom,” Carpentier says. “People who struggle with eating disorders do not struggle with a disorder of vanity. They are some of the smartest, kindest and incredible people I’ve ever met. Usually, there is a history of anxiety, depression, trauma, attachment issues, etc. Humans want to avoid emotional and physical pain, and people who struggle with eating disorders were given the tools by our society/at times genetic predisposition to learn how to cope with their pain by utilizing food, exercise, focusing on changing their bodies to make themselves feel better. It often makes people feel ‘in control’ if they are able to change their body when everything else in their lives feels chaotic or out of their control. It can also act as an escape from feeling anything at all. We are sold an ideal that changing our bodies can allow us to live a better life — and diets can quickly turn to eating disorders for many people.”

As you head into the holidays, it’s obviously a priority to be good and kind to the people you care about. For your loved ones struggling with eating disorders, a bit of understanding can go a long way to making sure they feel supported and loved all year round.

A version of this story was published December 2019.

Before you go, check out our favorite quotes for inspiring positive attitudes about food and bodies:

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