The holiday season is typically an indulgent time, especially when it comes to food and drink consumption. For people who struggle with body-image issues, food and weight-related health problems, including and especially eating disorders, this time of year can be stressful. We spoke with experts to offer tips that can help you navigate the season and its attendant anxieties: the meals, the parties and the people.
Be honest about who’s safe for you and who is not
The holiday season is one in which we find ourselves reconnecting with family and old friends we don’t often see. Gravitate toward those who are grateful and happy to see you, and away from the people who are apt to make cutting comments.
“In general, we know who’s going to be emotionally more safe for us,” said Leslie Connor, a private-practice psychologist in Wilmington, Delaware. She recommends keeping interactions with “toxic” people as brief as possible.
How can you identify toxic people? Pay attention to how conversations make you feel: Do you feel drained, or do you feel energized? Do you feel bad about yourself — or empowered?
“When we’re at a family gathering, you kind of know who’s uncensored and just going to say what they think, whether it’s kind or not,” Connor said.
Help others by creating a welcoming environment
“I encourage people to be supportive and not to ask probing questions or give unnecessary advice,” said Ed Abramson, a professor emeritus at California State University. Comments about weight will only serve to make someone with an eating disorder or issue more defensive and create barriers to communication. “If you do want to say something,” Abramson said, “basically what you want to communicate is: ‘How can I help you?’”
Connor agrees. “Your job is to be welcoming, warm and accepting of the people you’re with,” she said, “and that goes a long way.” If you do have a gaffe and comment on someone’s weight, “you can always apologize,” Abramson said. “But if that’s not appropriate or it doesn’t seem to work very well, gracefully focus on something else.”
Set boundaries ahead of time
Whitney Catalano, a registered dietitian who works with clients to improve their relationships with food and their bodies, recommends telling the people you trust about your situation before holiday gatherings, so you can set expectations and conditions for socializing. She suggests saying something like: “Just so you know, I don’t want to get into it more than this, but I’ve been healing my relationship with food and I’m particularly sensitive to diet talk or body talk right now.” Ask them to refrain from conversations about dieting or body image. You may have to wait to have this conversation in person, but try to do it right off the bat so you don’t have to think about it.
Friends could be more amenable to your requests than family members, who may feel entitled to comment on your body and weight. Catalano said that it’s important to be direct and honest with your relatives, even if they’re the ones who taught you to hate your body or fear food in the first place.
“Pick a time to have this conversation when everyone’s defenses are low,” she said. “Set boundaries for what they can and cannot talk about in front of you, and then make sure to enforce those boundaries if they cross any.”
You don’t have to please anyone
When someone comments on your food choices, you don’t have to engage. You can respond with a slightly disinterested “Oh?” and then either turn away or ask a question — “Have you watched ‘Succession’?” — to change the topic. “You don’t have to attend every conversation you’re invited to,” Sophie Carter-Kahn, a writer and the host of the podcast “She’s All Fat.”
It’s also important to remember that it is the other person’s choice to create the situation. “It’s not your job to smooth everything over, to make yourself smaller to accommodate someone else’s ideas of how the world should be,” she said.
Food anxiety doesn’t have to turn into food panic
This season can be overwhelming for anyone whose relationship with food is fraught. “The holidays are a perfect storm of food and body anxiety,” Catalano said. “Don’t be surprised if your relationship with food feels particularly out of control during this time.”
She suggests two ways to weather the storm: First make a list of people, foods and situations that are likely to trigger disordered eating patterns or negative thoughts. Second, in the moment, name the experience by acknowledging that the negative diet and body image thoughts are happening, but that they do not have to dictate your actions. “Allow it to be a challenge,” Catalano said, “while also making a promise to yourself to not make any body or lifestyle decisions from a place of panic.”
No food is “bad” food
“Certain foods get demonized,” like starches or gluten or fat, Abramson said, “and that gets exacerbated when someone has an eating disorder. But a balanced diet can include occasional foods that are problematic.”
If you’re struggling with allowing yourself to enjoy “bad” foods during the holidays, try to redirect your thoughts to the benefits of the meal. “Food is not just fuel, it’s cultural, celebratory and delicious. You are allowed to eat foods just because they are delicious or emotionally nourishing,” Catalano said.
Abramson suggests a dual approach to managing food anxiety. One is the more cognitive method of telling yourself: “I can allow myself modest amounts of it and be OK.”
The other is to use anxiety reduction techniques like deep breathing, alternating between muscle tension and muscle relaxation, meditating or praying. “Whatever an individual can learn to do to decrease anxiety would be helpful when they’re confronted with the food,” Abramson said.
Go ahead and be the judge
Catalano warns against setting strict limits on food consumption during the holidays. “The best thing you can do to prepare for holiday dinners is to eat full meals leading up to the meal and center yourself right before eating so you don’t go into it anxious. It’s normal in diet culture to restrict or starve as a way of ‘earning’ the big holiday meal, but this will only cause you to overeat and feel way worse,” she said.
One piece of advice Catalano gives her clients to help them calm down from food anxiety is to “treat your meal like you’re a judge on ‘Chopped’ or any other Food Network show. How’s the presentation? What does it smell like? How’s the texture? Do the flavors go well together? Is the food lacking any flavor? What would you rate this meal if it were presented to you on a cooking show?” This exercise, she said, can “redirect the conversation away from diet talk because you’re focusing instead on the actual experience of eating.”
Bear in mind that the only way you can maintain balance is to say no to certain things, so if you have to pass on your brother-in-law’s best friend’s ugly sweater party in order to make it to a yoga class, catch up on “Real Housewives of New Jersey” or sleep, so be it.