The holiday season is upon us, and for individuals struggling with an eating disorder or for those at any point on the road to recovery, this is a challenging time where it can be easy to get caught off-guard. From large family dinners (so much food in the house) to office parties (candy and cake…at work…every day) to holiday parties (bring on the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres), there is a seemingly endless supply of indulgences at this time of year. Because of this heavy emphasis on food, a lot of “stuff” comes up for those trying to improve their relationship with food.
For some, it may be a mix of anxiety and excitement. I would grow excited over the basically unlimited access to foods I typically didn’t permit myself to eat (during the holidays, it was all the baked goods: cookie platters and anything frosted). With this anticipation, though, came a heightened fear of general overeating or feeling that I would binge. Other common issues that arise during this time are increased food-focused thoughts, inclination to isolate and avoid gatherings, and desires to compensate (fasting, restricting, or over-exercising before or after big meals).
Other common issues that arise during this time are increased food-focused thoughts, inclination to isolate and avoid gatherings, and desires to compensate (fasting, restricting, or over-exercising before or after big meals).
During my sessions with clients the week before Thanksgiving, this was a common theme, and we discussed a number of ways to prepare for the day to help reduce both anxiety and the risk of behaviors that might be detrimental to the recovery process.
Don’t restrict or compensate before the meal
This includes fasting, “clean” eating, or exercising to burn calories before consuming them. This increases the likelihood of a binge because you go into the meal or party especially hungry and feel you can reward yourself for eating less all day. For someone with disordered eating, this is particularly dangerous because it enhances the restrict-and-reward cycle, as a binge-type meal often increases the desire to “get back on track” the next day by reintroducing restriction. Instead, eat meals and snacks as you normally would during the day.
Go in with a non-food-focused plan
The holidays are about more than just food. Think ahead about friends or family members you haven’t seen in a while. What’s going on in their lives? What questions do you want to ask them? What updates on your own life do you want to give? Doing this literally gives your mind something else to focus on and should help you remain present with your surroundings and those with you.
Put your fork down between bites
When given the chance to eat frequently forbidden foods, speed of eating often increases in those who restrict, which can make the meal or party take on that binge-y, compulsive feeling (that all of us familiar with this struggle want to avoid). Intentionally putting your fork down every few bites slows eating and, like the recommendation above, helps you shift your attention to details other than what you’re eating.
Remember that you can have leftovers
This is such a powerful reminder. It helps reduce bingeing because it reminds you that you can always have more tomorrow, so you don’t need to “get it all in” today. This is helpful at both meals and parties. For example, if you know you can go to the store and buy that amazing-looking cupcake another day, you will feel less of a need to eat as many at the party (yes, a frosted baked good; this is a personal example). The most important reason this is such a powerful and wonderful habit is that it embraces the concept of allowance. Allowance reminds you that no food is better or worse than another. It says you are worthy of permitting yourself the foods you want to eat. It is the opposite of restriction.
This season, give yourself the gift of letting go of restriction and practicing habits that help you achieve a healthier relationship with food.