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Tips for navigating the holidays with an eating disorder

Posted at 8:59 PM, Nov 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-23 21:59:30-05

ASHWAUBENON — Thanksgiving is a whole holiday dedicated to food. For those who are struggling with eating disorders, experts say it can be the hardest day of the year.

However, there are ways to make kitchen comments and table conversations a little more manageable.

“When you’re talking to your family and friends in general, you don’t really know who has an eating disorder," Mallory Baerenwald, a registered dietician at Bellin Health, said. "It doesn’t come in any shape and size even though the textbook, stereotypical image we see is someone who looks like skin and bones.”

The American Psychiatric Association defines eating disorders as "illnesses in which people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions." According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, and eating disorders are the second deadliest mental illness behind opioid overdose.

Eating disorders can range from restricting food to binging food. Regardless, Baerenwald said the holiday season is a challenging time of the year for individuals, and some of these challenges include being around food and hearing food and weight-related comments from family and friends.

“Everyone is talking about food. The holiday revolves around this big dinner, and people might not be comfortable eating a lot of food or eating the food that’s provided," Baerenwald said. "There’s also so much talk about dieting and how the holidays cause weight gain even though that’s not necessarily true.”

However, she said there are steps to take to help alleviate the challenges.

“Try to come up with a plan before you even get there," Baerenwald said.

She added that "setting boundaries to not talk about what is on their plate or what's not on their plate" as well as trying to change the conversation or walking away can be helpful too.

"How’s your family doing? How’s school doing? How’s work?" Baerenwald said. "These are ways to change the conversation if you're not comfortable with asking directly."

Dr. Paula Cody, a UW Health Kids Adolescent health expert, echoed this advice and added her own.

“Have an ally at that meal for you who can help you get out of situations you may find triggering," Cody said. “Lastly, make sure to focus on the true intention of the holiday, including love, gratitude and connection.”

For anyone seeking resources related to eating disorders, a screening tool, helpline and database of local treatment centers can be found online here through the National Eating Disorders Association.