Eating Disorders and Developing Healthy Holiday Traditions

Contributor: Andrea Teresa Roche, MS, RD, LDN for Behavioral Nutrition, Inc.

thanksgiving-362911_640The holiday season is the time of year most associated with traditions, many of which revolve around food. For those struggling with an eating disorder this can be an especially stressful time, and seemingly simple commitments such as attending a holiday gathering and reuniting with family can become sources of tremendous anxiety and immense emotional strain.

But by preparing yourself and going into the holiday season with the goal of developing healthy holiday traditions, we can actually make these healthy habits last a lifetime!

It Begins with Halloween Candy

It starts with Halloween and the candy, followed by the smorgasbord at Thanksgiving. More holiday food enters the picture throughout December with a grand finale on New Year’s Eve. It is common for individuals to isolate during the throws of their eating disorder and in many regards such isolation helps to maintain addictive and destructive behaviors.

Furthermore, such isolation occurs from a deeply rooted fear of being negatively evaluated by peers. This is a common defense mechanism during the holidays as such gatherings generally involve numerous attendees and therefore, more opportunities for being evaluated by peers. (Zaitsoff, Fehon, & Grilo, 2009).

Thanksgiving and the Encouragement to Eat, Eat, Eat

star-407747_640Specifically, those with anorexia may have a hard time hiding their eating disorder with family watching what they are eating. While other members are filling their plates with turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes, individuals suffering from anorexia might eat one slice of turkey and a cracker, using excuses, such as “I’m not really hungry right now, I’ll eat later,” or “I am going to a friends and want to save my appetite.”

For those suffering from bulimia or binge eating disorder, holiday meals pose a different type of problem. They will often over-eat, or eat only a little during dinner, but will later go back to eat a large amount of food in private.

Binge eaters will later feel guilty and ashamed of their behavior and the bulimic will purge their body of all the food they have eaten.

Preparing for Holiday Meals

While there is no definitive cure for surviving the holidays without reverting to unhealthy behaviors, it is possible to experience the holidays without enabling the eating disorder thoughts to take over.

Let’s mentally prepare ourselves for the challenges that lie ahead by developing healthy behaviors and traditions that are worth keeping year-round to help boost our health and happiness. Here are some tips for giving and receiving support this holiday season, whether you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder.

Tips to Help You through the Holidays

For those currently suffering from an eating disorder:

  • Be mindful of the holidays and the fact that they are not for just eating. Take time to reflect on the significance of being present with loved ones and shift the focus away from food.
  • Have a “buddy” that you can check in with during difficult meals or help you if you begin to struggle or panic. Ask if you can lean on them when dealing with obsessive or addictive behaviors. Knowing that there is someone who can help through tough times can be extremely powerful.
  • Be honest with your family and friends about your worries and concerns. Having an open and honest dialogue can make others aware of the complexity of eating disorders especially around the holidays.
  • Decrease stress by making lists, such as deciding what to spend and how much time you will commit to shopping. If you do not find the “perfect” gift, the world will not end.
  • Reduce stress surrounding food-related activities. Make peace with the concept of holiday-related food reminding yourself to remain present and not become stuck in common eating disorder related thoughts. Be prepared by consuming a small meal or snack before attending parties. Allow yourself to enjoy a holiday food that you have fond memories of, and if you consume a little more than planned, it’s okay. Tomorrow is a new day. For now, remember to refocus yourself on the reason for the season!

For those currently in recovery:

  • Discuss your holiday anticipations with your treatment team so that they can help you with potential stressors and triggers and enact a plan for coping and overcoming. Preparing for stressful situations and working on strategies beforehand can help you not fall into self-destructive patterns.
  • Stick to your prescribed recovery program. Structure your day so that you can keep to the recovery disciplines and actions, especially when it comes to scheduled meal times.
  • Avoid “overstressing” and “overbooking” yourself. Cut down on unnecessary events and obligations to give yourself time for relaxation, renewal and self-contemplation. Remember that you do not have to attend every single season-related event.

For those with a loved one suffering from an eating disorder:

  • Avoid the role of “food police” unless a treatment team has given you a plan to monitor and portion your loved ones’ food. This role may backfire and cause increased anxiety.
  • Offer support and words of encouragement. Ask specifically how you can help them cope with the stressors of the holidays and assist them with their treatment and recovery.
  • Be respectful of the individual’s recovery process. If the person is not yet comfortable eating or celebrating in front of others let them know that you understand and are there to support them.

Relying on the Support of Others

couple-235664_640For those who struggle with an eating disorder the key to navigating holiday eating with confidence lies in realizing where you, your friend, or loved one are in the recovery process. Planning ahead and relying on the support of others will go a long way towards confronting these challenging times.

Let’s also remember that our ideal weight is the size at which we have plenty of energy, can think clearly, and experience joy. It has nothing to do with the number on the scale. So, this holiday season let’s view our body as a vehicle for life rather than something to be controlled. What a wonderful holiday tradition to pass along, loving and respecting our body.

Give yourself permission to keep these holiday traditions throughout the year. Your mind, body and spirit will thank you for it!

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What are some healthy holiday traditions that you enjoy while in Eating Disorder Recovery?


  1. Zaitsoff, S. L., Fehon, D. C., & Grilo, C. M. (2009). Social competence and social-emotional isolation and eating disorder psychopathology in female and male adolescent psychiatric inpatients. International Journal Of Clinical Health & Psychology, 9(2), 219-228.