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Navigating Thanksgiving with an Eating Disorder – Tips for Individuals and Families

 “Have some more – we don’t want it to go to waste!”

“That’s all you’re going to have?”

“Have some more pie – it’s just once a year!”

 Have you ever heard something like this at a big Thanksgiving meal? These seemingly innocuous statements might be intended as invitations to make the most of Thanksgiving, but well-intentioned talk about eating can be a trigger for people that struggle with eating disorders like bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and anorexia nervosa.

Thanksgiving is about much more than food. It’s about sharing time with family and friends, expressing gratitude for the good things in life, and celebrating the transition from autumn to winter. Despite all the sentimental things Thanksgiving embodies, however, it is a holiday that’s centered around food and eating lots of it. For people with eating disorders, it can be a difficult scenario – one that’s tough to navigate.

In spite of the difficulty of the day for people who struggle with disordered eating, Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to affirm recovery. Managing one’s recovery on a holiday whose main focus is eating is cause for celebration and a sense of pride. Here’s we’ll outline some of the ways people with eating disorders can navigate this holiday – and how the people acting as a support system can help.

Tips for Individuals with Eating Disorders on Thanksgiving

For people who are still in treatment for eating disorders, their therapy team will likely help them prepare for Thanksgiving. In residential treatment, the holiday itself is likely to be celebrated in-house with everyone present focused on group recovery. However, for recovered individuals, it’s much more likely they’ll be with family and friends, who aren’t as focused on eating disorder recovery. For these folks, there are some ways to ease the stress of the holiday and make the most of this time of gratitude.

  1. Make a plan – and stick to it!Most likely, after graduating from an eating disorder treatment program, there will be a meal plan in place. Talk to your dietitian and therapist about what Thanksgiving means for this plan ahead of time, so you aren’t going in unprepared. Your eating disorder might tell you to eat less beforehand, but that’s the wrong way to go. Sticking to your regular meal plan is always advisable – even if that means eating less on Thanksgiving. You should also plan for how to deal with distress from family members who might become critical or judgmental.
  2. Build your support system. It takes courage to talk about your eating disorder to family members. Although immediate family might have been involved in therapy sessions, it’s unlikely that aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins will. If you’re ready, let them know about your recovery journey and ask them to provide support. You can even give them pointers or resources online to help them be compassionate and supportive on Thanksgiving. If that’s not workable, find someone who can be your go-to support. They can help you get out of difficult conversations or provide a refuge if you’re feeling distressed.
  3. Stay away from weight-loss sites and social media. This is good advice year-round for people with eating disorders.However, leading up to Thanksgiving and well after, there’s a lot of talk about how to lose weight after the big meal. This can’t provide anything positive for a recovered person. It’s better to unfollow those sites or platforms or even block them. A recovered Thanksgiving should be about enjoying the food and the company, and not thinking about the possibility of weight changes.
  4. Prepare your coping techniques. Thanksgiving is going to be a stressful day – there’s no way around it. Even beyond the triggers surrounding the meal, many people experience great stress around the holidays – and stress can cause a return of disordered eating patterns. That’s why it’s essential to get your coping techniques ready. Be ready to take a break – go outside and meditate for a few moments, take a short walk, read a chapter in your current book. Anything that takes your mind off the stress for a while and lets you center yourself.
  5. Remember that all foods are good foods. Your eating disorder might tell you that some foods are “bad.” It might tell you that it’s OK to have turkey as long as you skip the pumpkin pie. Don’t listen. All foods are good foods, and you don’t need to pick and choose or make a deal with yourself about which foods you eat and which you don’t. Intuitive eating is important year-round, but it comes into focus during the holidays. Remind yourself that you can eat whatever you want – and get some affirmations ready as well.
  6. Embrace the spirit of Thanksgiving. Sure, for many people, the meal is the centerpiece of the holiday. However, the original spirit of the holiday is one of gratitude and appreciation for the good things in life. Taking the time to contemplate these things will not only help you take the focus away from food and eating but let you reaffirm the positive changes you’ve made in life since beginning your eating disorder recovery journey.

Tips for Family Members and Other Supporting Individuals

If you’re having Thanksgiving with someone in recovery from an eating disorder, chances are good you are a close friend or family member. The chances are just as good you want them to feel at ease and ready to enjoy the mood and the company at this holiday meal. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving is rife with pitfalls for people trying to support a loved one with an eating disorder. So much of the conversation revolves around eating and related topics. To help avoid these sensitive potential triggers and provide support during Thanksgiving dinner, here are some tips for loved ones.

  1. Let them know you’re here for them. This is the basis for supporting anyone, of course. You can pull them aside earlier in the day and simply let them know you’re available to talk or do anything else that might take some pressure off them. Or you can do so in a less direct way. If they are beginning to look uncomfortable, they might be struggling with eating disorder urges or that they’re being judged. In a situation like that, you can be there for them by changing the topic of conversation, or distracting the person that’s making them uncomfortable.
  2. Don’t mention their weight or health. Another wise rule of thumb for every situation – don’t discuss a person’s weight, especially not in public or until they’ve asked. Even a well-intentioned comment like, “You look so healthy!” can be triggering to a person in recovery. It might seem counterintuitive, but such a statement can remind them that they’ve been gaining weight (or otherwise been experiencing changes due to their recovery) and trigger disordered thinking. It should go without saying that you should never mention the weight of a person with an eating disorder, and you should also take care to:
  3. Don’t mention YOUR weight or health. At Thanksgiving, people are prone to say things like, “Oh, I’ll have to hit the gym after a meal like this!” For people without eating disorders, it might seem an innocent thing to say, but for people with an eating disorder, it’s a subconscious validation of restriction, dieting, purging, excessive exercise, or even a sense of feeling guilty about eating. You should always make an effort to downplay or eliminate any discussion about dieting or weight loss around a person with an eating disorder; at a time when food is everyone’s focus, it’s doubly important to do so. Instead, redirect the topic to what you’re thankful for, how the football game is going, etc. – anything that’s not food-related.
  4. Engage your empathy. One way to provide support to your loved one is to educate yourself about eating disorders. Try to put yourself in their shoes, read and hear their testimonials – you’ll see how distressing an event like Thanksgiving can be. There are lots of resources online for families and friends of people with eating disorders. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has vast resources to get started – check them out here. When you understand more about what it’s like living with an eating disorder, you can being to understand how it feels to hear certain things and feel judged.
  5. Don’t press the issue. If your loved one is starting to feel distressed or anxious at the meal, don’t make them the center of attention. Be available to lend an ear, of course, but trying to encourage them in front of the group can make the anxiety even worse. Instead of saying something like, “You’re doing great,” for everyone to hear, try quietly asking them if they’re OK. Either they’ll say yes and feel encouraged, or they’ll say no, and you can help them get away and take a break for a few minutes.
  6. Enjoy your time together. Sometimes the best thing you can do about an eating disorder is to just ignore it. If your loved one gets the sense you’re tiptoeing around the subject, it can make them self-conscious and add to the stress. Instead, just keep things light and talk about whatever you’d normally talk about in everyday get-togethers. Your company is what matters; just remind them (and yourself) why you’re loved ones in the first place

The Bottom Line

Eating disorders are complex, emotionally distressing mental health disorders that can make every eating situation more difficult. A holiday like Thanksgiving that centers on eating can be even more difficult. To make it easier for yourself or a loved one, remember to put your focus on what you’re thankful for, spending time with your loved ones, and enjoying their company. And if you’re struggling, remember also that help is available. Recovery isn’t always easy, but it is worth it.

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.