Christmas, food, eating disorders and diets
Hope Virgo, Author and Mental Health Campaigner
What a year we have all had, and as you read this it is less than a week until Christmas, a time of year which carries so much emotions for so many. My relationship with Christmas has been an emotional rollercoaster in itself each year and one that still carries a mixture of uncertainty and fear.
I grew up in a Christian family, so understanding the Christmas message was always central to what we talked about at home. Christmas Day was spent getting up early opening our stocking presents, then heading off to church. We would come home, open some more presents, have a long lunch and relax. It was a day that whilst was fun with presents, didn’t carry much other emotion. This was all up until I developed anorexia. Developing anorexia at the age of 13 years old, quite literally sucked all the joy out of Christmas. It was no longer a day of excitement but a day I grew to fear, a day that I was so scared to even approach it. Months and months before I would begin to fear it, and you might think that when you start recovery it gets easier, but doesn’t. In fact, in so many ways it gets harder. I won’t ever forget my first Christmas home from hospital, we were trying to work out what the meal would look like, then sitting with these feelings of uncertainty and fear, the constant comparisons and then trying to avoid conversations around dieting and portions. This year, for some Christmas might seem easier, and be something you feel more excited about after such a rough year, but for so many the fear, guilt, uncertainty is still there.
I wanted to share some things that I do, to alleviate some of the stress, and guilt around the season. Because what I can tell you (and I never thought I would say this), is you can get to a place where you do actually start to enjoy this season.
Tip 1: Planning is key!
Have a rough outline of what your Christmas period will look like; make sure this includes the days before and the days afterwards. Depending on where you are at in your recovery from an eating disorder will determine how much structure you put around this but for me it is about having a rough outline with key meals planned, some timings embedded and always making sure that I have some time for myself! It is really helpful, if you are able to, to share this with someone who might be with you for Christmas so that you know that certain elements of the plan will happen! Within this I do recommend working out where there is some flexibility with the plan!
Tip 2: Identify your support network
Eating disorders want us to feel isolated, alone and like we are the odd one out, but it is important that we assess who we have around us. Is there one person that you can be honest with about what is going on? You don’t necessarily need to be with them on the day, but have them on hand if you need to check in and send a quick message. There are also some fantastic support networks out there too (Anorexia, Bulimia, Care and First Steps ED).
Tip 3: Distraction is key!
Have those things in place before and after meals – watching TV, going for a nice walk with someone, playing a board game…! And if you need distraction but don’t want to leave the kitchen, how about becoming the “chief washer upper” for the day!
Tip 4: Move on diet chat!
We all have that person that we know who obsesses over diet culture, and who more often than not feels like we all need to change up what we are doing when it comes to food, weight, calories… you name it! But sitting at a table where someone is often talking about dieting, or commenting on plate size can feel really challenging. If this happens to you, keep the conversation moving on. Have those ideas up your sleeve ready to bring out if helpful; comment on the weather, ask a direct question about what they did last weekend... all of this will help you to move the focus!
A few things for those who may be supporting someone with an eating disorder:
Be Mindful of what you say
There will be people this Christmas that you might see that you haven’t seen for months, so please be mindful of commenting on weight, portion size and talking about lockdown weight! Whether you know someone has an eating disorder or not this can be extremely triggering. Remember we don’t know what is going on if a person loses or gains weight. And whilst having general conversations please do avoid saying things like “I earned this Christmas lunch / pudding / xxx because I dieted for the last month.”
If you have someone in your family who you know may know does this, please talk to them about it beforehand and lay out the guidance.
Make sure you sit down with the person beforehand to talk this over, and when it is finalised please don’t change last-minute plans around food. Additionally, within the plans make sure there are activities that don’t always happen around food!
Remind the person that “it will be okay”, check in to ask “what can I do to support you around the day?” and remind them that you are there if they want to offload.
There is no denying it, Christmas can be a really challenging time for so many people. And for all of us we have our reasons why it might feel hard, but think about what you can do to make the period better for you, try not to feel selfish doing that, and keep taking those steps forward. There might be moments when it gets too much but hold on to those motivators in your recovery, push forward and hold on to the truth that those feelings do pass! And remember; if it all goes wrong, you can start again the next day!