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Day 6. Eating Disorders at Christmas

6 Tips for Coping at Christmas with an Eating Disorder

Help if you suffer yourself, or are supporting a loved one who does.

The top of the image says 'coping at Christmas' and the bottom says 'with an Eating Disorder'. In between the two sentences is different plates of food. There is a large turkey in the centre, surrounded by a gravy dish, mussels, mashed potato, bread, salad, roast potatoes, Christmas pudding, and other dishes which are not clear exactly what they are. According to BEAT, the UK’s Eating Disorder Charity around 1.25 million people in the UK suffer with these illnesses. These include bulimia, binge eating disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARDIF), other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED), and anorexia. Eating disorders cause more deaths than any other mental health disorder, and yet many still suffer in silence.

Christmas can be a particularly challenging period for someone who struggles with their relationship with food. It can feel overwhelming, and thoughts of food and negative body image can become even more consuming than usual during the festive season. These tips offer advice based on conversations with lived experiences of coping during Christmas, and also how to help your loved ones who may be suffering with an eating disorder through this particularly challenging time.

The below tips are from someone who suffers with Bulimia. These tips may not be suitable for everyone, and you should always talk to your GP first. This individual wished to remain anonymous. 

6 Tips for coping, from someone who has been through it too:

Plan Ahead
Christmas often throws our routines off, which can be highly anxiety inducing if you have an Eating Disorder. In order to feel more in control at Christmas, plan your days/weeks ahead. It can be particularly helpful for festive meals such as Christmas Dinner if you know what will be on the table and what to expect. Don’t be afraid of sticking to your plan even if it means you have to say ‘no’ to some things – it is more important that you are not overwhelmed and are able to fully partake in the events you do attend. 
Adjust Expectations
It is unlikely you will be able to control everything during Christmas. Things might go off plan, or the food may be slightly different to what you were expecting. Remember that is okay – you don’t have to ‘make up’ for anything you did/didn’t do this Christmas. Try to be present in the moment, take your time to control your thoughts and get back to your plan when you can.
Prioritise Your Health
It is okay to say ‘no’ when saying ‘yes’ might be too much for you. You do not have to attend every single social occasion this Christmas. If it sounds like something that could be too much, or you were already feeling overwhelmed, there is no obligation to go – put your own health first and sit this one out.
Have a Christmas Reminder
Set yourself a slogan this Christmas. I try and remind myself to ‘be present’. I found thoughts of food and calories often consumed my mind during Christmas and I was often not fully present in the moments when the best memories were being made. So set yourself a reminder and when you feel overwhelmed or consumed, remind yourself of your slogan and the reasons you set it in the first place.
Talk to Your Loved Ones
If you feel able to, explain how you are feeling to your family, friends, and the people around you. They won’t want you suffering in silence and if there are small things they can do this Christmas to make you more comfortable, tell them.
Focus on the Moments
The most helpful tip I have found that helps me was what will you remember in your dying moments? Will it be the amount of food you ate in Christmas 2023? Or will it be the laughs you shared around the table at Christmas, or the joy on the faces of your friends at the Christmas party, or the lights and music at the Christmas market? For me, the memories win every time. Having lost loved ones recently, I look back at Christmas and the only thing I think about is their faces full of joy and love. Don’t miss out on the moments because you were too consumed by the calories. We only get one life and at the end, what will you wish you were able to do more of?

6 Tips for Helping:

Plan Ahead
Knowing how the day will go and what food will be available can be really helpful for someone struggling with an Eating Disorder and is such a simple thing to do. Make sure the plan is achievable and simple, as going off plan can sometimes be worse than having no plan at all.
Discuss Their Needs
No eating disorder is the same. The experience will vary across diagnosis’ and lived experiences (and many eating disorders go diagnosed), so listen when they tell you how something makes them feel, and how you can help. The best thing you can do is just be there for them. This isn’t something they are choosing to do or feel, so support them when you can and listen to them always.
Avoid Food or Diet Talk
One of the most damaging things at Christmas for someone going through this can be the conversations around the New Years diet you are planning, or talking about the amount you have eaten in a negative way, or how much weight you have put on this Christmas. Avoid talking about diets or food, and if someone else brings it up, swiftly steer the conversation somewhere else. As well as the common fat-shaming comments, comments about someone looking ‘good’ because they have lost weight, or saying someone looks ‘healthy’ because they have put on weight, can also be particularly damaging.
Centre the Festivities Around Something Other Than Food/Drink
Events that are centred entirely around a meal or food can result in someone who is suffering’s day and thoughts also being centred entirely around food. When food is treated as an event or the main purpose of the day, it makes it into a big deal, the thoughts become all consuming. If it is instead treated as just another part of the day, we have lunch as usual and then continue with the day, this takes the pressure off and can make it feel much less overwhelming.
Give Them Space
They may need to take some time out or away from a certain situation, don’t put pressure on them to re-join or make it into a big deal, just check in on them when they are ready to return and make sure they have space they can go to if they need. Making sure they are in their own home for Christmas can be really helpful for this, knowing they have somewhere safe they can be if they need a moment to themselves.
Avoid Comments About What Anyone Eats
Comments such as ‘gosh iv’e eaten so much’ or ‘how are you eating again already?!’, or even saying how well they are doing, can be really triggering when you have an eating disorder. It is not helpful to say they are doing ‘well’ or comment on what yourself or others are or are not eating. Avoiding talk like this completely can be a really easy way to avoid triggering negative thoughts in someone suffering with an eating disorder at Christmas.
Other Comments:
It is always worth remembering that eating disorders are not a visible illness. People of any shape, size, age or gender can suffer with an eating disorder, so never assume there is no one in the room who is struggling. Comments about weight, food, diets or alcohol could be triggering for someone you are in a room with so always try and avoid these conversations where you can, or steer others away from them. Do bare in mind that these tips are based on my experience, and while I sincerely hope they are able to help, I am not a doctor or qualified dietitian. Always talk to your GP about help available, and in the meantime the below support is available if you need expert guidance at any time, not just at Christmas.

Resources:

BEAT’s helpline is available 365 days a year for young people with eating disorders, or for anyone whose life is affected by eating disorders.

The National Centre For Eating Disorder’s Website contains everything you need about eating disorders, treatment, information and professional training in the help & treatment of eating disorders.

CALM’s Helpline and Livechat are open 5pm to Midnight 365 days a year, for anyone over the age of 15 that needs support with their mental health.

The Mix offers online information as well as helpline support to under-25s about anything that’s troubling them.

Youth Access provides information about local counselling and advice services for young people aged 12-25.

If you or someone you know needs help right now, always call 999.