Healthy Holidays – It’s Not About the Food

For a person who struggles with an eating disorder, social functions that revolve around food aren’t easy and it isn’t as clear as you might think. If you’ve never had an eating disorder or have known anyone with one (or issues surrounding food), you might think it’s as simple as this: eat, or don’t eat.

We can all be a little more healthy this holiday season – and I don’t mean by lightening up Grandma’s sweet potato recipe! I mean by being mindful and full of grace, not judgement.

While the holidays should be joyful and relaxed, it’s weeks on end celebrating with family, food, and sometimes uncomfortable situations for anyone. For someone with an eating disorder, it’s not necessarily a vacation.

We hear it all the time, particularly around Thanksgiving time. We hear and say things like:

“I’m not eating all day to prepare for the meal.”

“I’m so full, I’m not eating tomorrow.”

“Good thing I ran/worked out extra long yesterday.”

“I earned this meal.”

“I’m going to have to workout twice tomorrow!”

“I feel disgusted with myself.”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar? Have you said or heard any of them? Maybe it’s time to stop and rethink the messages we’re sending revolving around food and exercise – and what it might imply about your or someone else’s self worth.

For someone actively in an eating disorder or has disordered thoughts around food and/or exercise, they’re already thinking this… all the time. They might believe they have to “earn” food through exercise or a meticulous balance of intake/output of calories. They might already be planning how they can cut calories now to “save up” for them later.

And hearing it from others close to them (and society’s acceptance of this) just confirms that it’s normal, healthy, and acceptable. It’s not. They’re already very aware of everything people around them suddenly are in tune with – food, how it effects our bodies, and the shame we might feel around it.

Aside from the inconsiderate-yet-accepted comments about holiday meals, from my personal experience and what I know about eating disorders, here are some things someone might struggle with around the holidays:

  • Portion sizes – Buffet-style meals are often difficult because what is a “normal” portion size becomes skewed for someone struggling with an eating disorder. Sometimes they need to measure and plan meals and this style of eating doesn’t fit into that obsession.
  • Don’t know (fear of) what’s in it – If they haven’t had a part in cooking the meal, there might be a “fear food” within a side dish and the need to control what does/doesn’t go in their body comes alive.
  • Sitting around before/after meals – For someone who desires to burn calories eaten, sitting around with family and friends around mealtime could cause stress and anxiety. It becomes harder to get away with fidgeting, pacing, and exercising around mealtimes.
  • Eating with family who might be aware of their issues – They may feel like they’re being watched or judged.
  • Commenting on what is/isn’t on plate – No matter if you’ve taken more than expected (“Wow, you’re going to eat all that?”) or less (“Why don’t you have a little more?”), neither are good situations.
  • Commenting on fullness and how clothes feel on their body after a meal – Other people might say things about how the food has immediately impacted their bodies (unbuttoning jeans, changing into stretchy pants!). For me, or someone with an eating disorder, I believed that the food would show up on my body as soon as I ate it… I felt my clothes feeling more snug due to fullness, but the feeling always subsided.
  • Labeling food as “good” or “bad” – Food is immoral. If we eat a food we’ve deemed “bad,” then don’t we see ourselves as “bad,” too? When we make foods off-limits, then we want more of it, right?. All foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle… and it’s not a “cheat” or “indulgence.” It’s food.
  • And… Not eating all day to “save up” for bigger holiday meal; Exercise relating to what one has eaten/not eaten; Society’s acceptance of having a negative relationship with food (however humorous)

So, how can we be more gentle, mindful, and mentally healthy this holiday season? For one, we can remember what the season means by practicing gratitude, and enjoying time with our loved ones.

Instead of noticing what’s on our plates and in our bellies, take a deeper look at what’s in your hearts and on your mind. Let’s use this time to make more memories with our loved ones instead of pointing out our flaws and focusing on our insecurities.

If you notice someone uncomfortable and needing an outlet, take their minds off the food and other stressors of the season (alcohol, family, etc.) and ask if they’d like to play a game or go for a walk.

Speaking of exercise, of course it can be healthy if done in the right frame of mind. If you feel the need to move, go for a family walk, start a game of kickball, or have a field day with several fun school games. Enjoy the way movement feels and get some fresh air.

Whether we realize it or not, our words and actions carry a great weight with those we love. How will you use your power this holiday season?

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