Eating Disorders & Thanksgiving: What not to say around your loved one in ED recovery

Of all the holidays from all over the world, I cannot think of a more food centered example than an American Thanksgiving. As I have not traveled to every country around the world, I may stand corrected; however, in my limited travel experience I have noticed a prominent fascination non-Americans have for the Thanksgiving tradition. I think that it is safe to say that when most people think of Thanksgiving, American or not, the first thing that comes to mind is food, lots and lots of food. We think of the mounds of stuffing, rolls, and mashed potatoes that accompany the essential and iconic gravy smothered turkey. As if the main course is not enough, we also think of the delectable string of pies and sugary treats that are sure to follow. For most, this is a holiday tradition to look forward to; but for those struggling with eating disorders, it is a different story entirely.

For those struggling with eating disorders, Thanksgiving is often a day to be dreaded. Think about it through their perspective for a moment. It is true that eating disorders are often very difficult for others to understand, so try to imagine food as the enemy or a source of fear for your loved one. No matter what type of ED your loved one struggles with, food will usually fall into one of these two categories: an enemy or a fear. Knowing this, understand that we are essentially asking our loved ones to sit down in a room full of people that they rarely see and face their biggest fear. Not only that, but everyone around them is discussing their biggest fear and seems to be able to tolerate it without a problem. This can feel very intimidating, isolating, and overwhelming for someone struggling with ED. For an alcoholic, you can eliminate the booze from the Thanksgiving festivities, but for someone with an eating disorder, you cannot eliminate the food. This can make this holiday particularly difficult for anyone with ED and anyone who loves someone with ED. While these small steps cannot completely take away the pain and discomfort of the day, they are a way in which you can offer support to your loved one and show them that you care and want to understand their struggle.

Don’t comment on their appearance. Whether or not the comment is meant to be positive, it is safest not to comment on the appearance of someone actively struggling with ED. Specifically, comments about weight and/or fitness can do more damage than good. Complimenting someone struggling with ED on their fitness or praising their slenderness will only reinforce their ED thoughts and behaviors. Conversely, commenting on an individual being overweight or their fluctuation in weight can induce feelings of guilt and shame that are often central to ED. Comments do not always have to be directed at weight or fitness to be damaging. Often, people say something along the lines of, “you look fine just the way you are,” or “I don’t know why you worry as much as you do about your weight you look great.” These comments are not intended to be malicious or harmful, but in the eyes of someone with ED, they are saying “my struggle doesn’t matter.” Not only that, but the focus is once again about their appearance rather than their other positive traits. By refraining from complimenting on appearance, no matter how well intentioned, you are reinforcing that there are so many other positive aspects of that individual apart from their appearance. We want to show our loved ones that there are other ways in which to define one’s self-worth.

Don’t use negative food talk. Negative food talk does not only involve talk about whether or not a food tastes good. It also includes discussing a food’s calorie content and/or fattening qualities. I believe that most people do not want to be reminded of the calories they are ingesting on Thanksgiving, and you can bet that your loved one struggling with ED is no exception to this. Discussing how unhealthy a dish is can inspire feelings of shame and guilt. General comments about the food being tasty or not wanting a food item due to dislike are of course acceptable. What is not acceptable are comments like, “I can’t stand green beans, just looking at them makes me want to vomit,”. Additionally, it is wise to be cautious when commenting on how full one is and to refrain from referring to your eating as a binge. General comments of being full are not harmful, but hearing “I feel so full I could be sick,” can be very harmful and triggering for someone struggling with ED. Similarly, calling your overeating “binging,” can also be upsetting and even invalidating for someone who struggles with that behavior. If you were to look up the definition of binging in the DSM-5, I can almost guarantee that Aunt Joan’s over stuffing herself with turkey and pie would not qualify; so, be mindful and do not refer to it as such.

Don’t make the food the sole focus of the day. On a holiday like Thanksgiving, it can be difficult not to make food the focus of the day, but if we were to strip it down to its very core, we would find that there is a much more profound meaning to Thanksgiving other than a perfectly stuffed turkey. Thanksgiving represents a day of gratefulness and thanks for the bounties of our land and the family and friends we share it with. If you are supporting someone struggling with ED on this holiday, make sure that this is the theme of the day. Make time for prayer or meditation around the table or maybe even have younger children perform a reading of the thanksgiving story. After prayers, have everyone go around the table and list a few things that they are grateful for. Since distraction and socialization can be a useful tool to help a loved one struggling with ED during meal time, you can even try making a game out of it. Play a thanksgiving themed game of 20 questions or I spy. We do not want to be walking around eggshells around our loved one, but we do want to demonstrate and communicate that the main theme of the day does not come with gravy on the side.

Don’t pressure them or bring up ED at the table. This dinner will already be pressure filled enough for your loved one without you adding to it. Often times, individuals think it will be helpful to encourage our loved ones struggling with ED to eat. Sometime this is the case; however, Thanksgiving is simply not the time and place. Remember the alcoholic analogy from above? Pressuring someone with ED to eat or to eat appropriately would be something very similar to taking an alcoholic to a bar, putting a beer in front of him, and telling him not to drink it. Thanksgiving is food overload, and at the table, in front of the family is not the time to bring attention to ED behaviors. If you are worried about your loved one, ask them how they are feeling or how the day has been for them instead of focusing on their behaviors towards food. If possible, it is best to pull them aside to discuss these things as they may not want others overhearing their struggles. ED can be very private, and it is not something your loved one will appreciate being broadcast.

Navigating the holidays can be tricky enough, navigating the holidays with ED can feel impossible. That is why it is so important for us to be supportive and understanding of our loved ones who carry this struggle. Even if you suspect that a loved one might struggle with an eating disorder, Thanksgiving may not be the best time to address it. Find some time after the holiday and talk with them one on one. If you already know your loved one is struggling, having a conversation with them before the day comes might also be helpful. Simply asking them how you can support them can go a long way and make a huge impact. Not sure how to recognize an eating disorder? Keep following our blog for an upcoming article on how to recognize eating disorders. If someone you know is struggling with and Eating Disorder, there is help available. Contact us at Olive Branch Counseling Associates to consult an expert. You and your loved one do not have to go through this alone. Remember what Thanksgiving is truly about and let that help to guide you in your support of your loved one.

By: Hayley Nelson

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