Coping at Christmas with an eating disorder

Published on: 23 December 2020

Christmas can cause a lot of anxiety within families where someone is living with an eating disorder. With pressure to eat lots of food and with so many activities centring on eating, it can be difficult not to feel anxious and overwhelmed at this time of year. 

These issues may be especially evident in this year of COVID-19, when so many things are different from the normal pattern of Christmas time, and many social activities are curtailed or do not happen at all. 

Trust Wellbeing Officer Ruth Bailey, who has her own personal experience of disordered eating, has some wise words after this year of COVID-19: “You need to allow your body to do whatever it needs to do throughout the pandemic. We are all trying to get through it as best we can and I don’t think weight should be a focus. Health can look different on everyone. Be confident and comfortable with how you are dealing with it.”

And she adds: “Christmas time was always the hardest time for me. It was an achievement for me not to eat all the treats. Now I try to listen to my body and not count the calories for the day. My biggest piece of advice would be to try not to over-analyse what you are doing around your eating habits at Christmas. Allow yourself to enjoy Christmas. Especially this year, we can realise how much we have to be thankful for. ”

Ruth is featured as special guest on a webinar on Coping with Eating Disorders hosted by the Thrive mental health app.  

There are things you can do to reduce any anxiety you may feel around the Christmas celebrations and the food and drink that is involved. 

Be prepared

Preparation is key to helping you to cope. Some people find it helpful to plan the big day, with regard to the Christmas menu, and decide what this will be in advance. 

Finding out what food will be available can help you plan what to eat. Whatever you choose to eat during the festivities, perhaps you can practise a similar meal beforehand as this might help you to realise it is not as scary as you feared. 

Helping with food preparation means that you may feel more reassured. If you feel more comfortable serving your own portion, ask ahead to relieve the worry. 

Plan what seasonal foods you want to have and fit them in to your eating plan. Give yourself permission to enjoy them. 

Portion control

If you are really struggling with planning your meals ahead, you may find it more helpful to stick to your usual food plan; or you can follow the Eat Well Guide, which is broken up into five individual groups.

All these groups are needed in these proportions for good health and to ensure you meet your body’s needs:

  • Fruit and vegetables (5 portions a day)
  • Starchy carbohydrates (1/3 of your plate should be made up of these)
  • Small amounts of fats and oils - needed for fat soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids and are not to be ignored as they are 'essential'
  • Three portions of dairy products which are the richest source of calcium and also contain essential proteins (a portion includes: a small pot of yoghurt, 1/3 pint of milk, a small matchbox size piece of cheese)
  • Three portions of non-dairy sources of protein: meat, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, poultry, mycoproteins (general rule of thumb: the size of the palm of your hand and about the thickness of a deck of cards or half a 400g tin).

Go easy on yourself

Christmas foods can be easily placed into each category, but Christmas is a time to enjoy yourself, so try and avoid being too rigid. Acknowledge your emotions and accept that is how you are feeling. There may be moments when you feel out of control and it is OK to recognise this. Identify someone you trust who can support you during the festivities. This should be someone you can speak to fairly easily if you are struggling.

Find a distraction

Try not to discuss food or body shape during meal times. Try to talk about other things. Having a break by watching a film, listening to music or having a warm bath can be helpful in trying to relax.

Advice for parents

For parents/carers of a young person with an eating disorder, it might be helpful to plate up their meal for them along with the whole family rather than everyone helping themselves. Planning ahead and discussing what you will have beforehand may be helpful, and you may find that some of these ideas could reduce some of the anxiety that comes with having too much choice, or being allowed to make more rigid choices. 

Remember the big picture

Remember: Christmas Day is one day, it does not last forever! The most important thing is that you enjoy yourself, have fun and spend time with family. Allow yourself some compassion and be kind to yourself.
Learn more about Derbyshire Healthcare’s eating disorders services.

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