No matter who you are or how you celebrate, the holidays are meant to be a time of reflection, gratitude, family, generosity, and rest — but all too often, the holidays are used as a thinly-veiled excuse for overindulgence.
We laugh at the post-Thanksgiving bloat, fatigue, and stomachache (and then line up again for dessert). We send our sober friends out into the snow for another bottle of wine. We shop excessively, compulsively, even violently. We literally trample people to death on our way into a Black Friday sale at 4 a.m.
The truth is, binging is deeply ingrained into our holiday traditions. Our culture encourages binging, from meals and movies to drinking and shopping.
Holiday binge culture is real, and nobody is free from it.
But for those of us with eating disorders and addictions, the holiday season and its associated excesses are particularly stressful. For years, I’ve struggled with anorexia and bulimia, and that struggle is never worse than when I’m face to face with a mound of grandma’s homemade holiday recipes.
Fortunately, I’ve learned a few things that have helped me navigate this dysfunctional food culture with an eating disorder. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but these 6 tips have allowed me to enjoy the holiday season as much as possible.
6 tips for surviving holiday binge culture in recovery
1. Avoid the binge, not the bingers
Eating disorders are known to be socially isolating. During the holidays, it can be tempting to make excuses to forgo the family reunion in favor of a more controlled eating environment.
I get it. Food-related anxiety and social eating make a bad combination, but isolating yourself is only going to amplify those feelings of shame, fear, and loneliness.
Be honest with your friends and family about how you feel. If you opt for bringing your own meal, tell them why. You may meet some resistance — “But it’s Christmas! Just enjoy the pie!” — but being open about what you’re going through is the first step to building a robust and caring support system for yourself.
2. If you want to binge, that’s okay too
Shame is a sticky, toxic emotion. For years, shame was the rope that wrenched me through endless cycles of binging, purging, and restricting, over and over again. I believe that learning to process, manage, and eliminate shame was the single most important part of my recovery.
So although holiday binge culture can be extremely triggering, remember this: overeating is not a sin. The mashed potatoes will not kill you. Hunger is natural.
If you binge — on food, wine, gifts, or anything else — don’t beat yourself up over it. Rather than feeling confined by your eating disorder or pressured by holiday binge culture, allow yourself the freedom to do whatever you want without shame, self-hatred, or insecurity.
3. Keep your routine
Almost every year, without fail, I make the same mistake: overcompensation. I skip breakfast and lunch in anticipation of the calorie-dense family meal or work out for hours to try to “counteract” the overindulgence. But it always backfires.
Disrupting your normal routine can actually trigger binges and other disordered behavior. To maintain a sense of stability and control over your eating habits, eat as much and as often as you usually would and resist the urge to “earn calories” with excessive exercise.
4. Listen to your body
I often think of my eating disorder as a war between my body and my mind. My body, cold and hungry and tired, fights for good food to fuel its day-to-day processes. My mind, anxious and uncertain, fights for comfort and control.
But the mind and body are meant to work in harmony. That’s why hungry people become irritable, over-stuffed people become sleepy, and fit people are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.
To survive the holidays, try to ignore the external pressure to binge. Take advantage of this time off work or school and use it to practice intuitive eating. Be mindful of how you feel physically, and let your body dictate what, when, and how much you eat.
5. Remember why you’re celebrating
As I said before, the holidays are meant to be a time of gratitude, joy, and celebration.
When you find yourself stressing about meals, suffering intrusive thoughts, and shaming yourself for the indulgent choices you may have made, remind yourself why you’re celebrating.
You’re not visiting home to torture yourself, you’re visiting home because you love your family. You’re grateful for what you have and you deserve time to rest and enjoy the year’s accomplishments.
Sometimes that means, yes, “just enjoy the pie.” Other times it means bringing a healthy, balanced meal to the Thanksgiving table to avoid falling back into harmful behaviors.
Whatever stage you’re at in your recovery, remember what the holidays are truly about, and try to enjoy them for what they are.
6. Don’t blame Grandma
Whenever I go home for the holidays, my grandma inevitably comments on my weight. “You’re too skinny,” she says while scooping another generous serving of food on my plate. “Eat up, have seconds, take the leftovers.”
Across cultures, families, and generations, grandmas love to force-feed their grandkids. In the depths of my eating disorder, I had a tendency to react to this grandmotherly impulse with pure hostility.
But my grandma (and grandmas everywhere who are armed with homemade cookies, warm soup, and buttery meals, just in case you stop by) pushes food on me because she loves me. She loves the sense of community and connection that comes with cooking a meal, and she loves to make sure her family is fed, warm, and happy. Plus, she’s a damn good cook.
Be nice to your grandma, and to the rest of your family, too. Even if they’re active participants in the holiday binge culture, remember that they have the best intentions in mind. You are loved.
Give yourself the gift of a happy, healthy holiday season
In the midst of a culture, and a season, that supports and encourages binging in all of its forms, focusing on your recovery isn’t always easy. But those of us suffering from eating disorders or additions could all learn a thing or two from the freedom, flexibility, and fun associated with the holiday season.
Don’t let your fear of binging get in the way of enjoying the holiday with your loved ones. You are stronger than the holiday binge culture. And by taking care of your body, being kind to yourself, and focusing on the true reasons for the holidays, you’ll survive. You might end up with a few extra pounds, a leaner bank account, and a fridge full of leftovers — but the point is, you will survive.