By Jean Hart – co-founder of tastelife.
For anyone suffering from an eating disorder, the thought of Christmas does not conjure up feelings of delightful anticipation, far from it. Thoughts about the Christmas meal itself, and having to sit round a table pretending to be happy with friends and relatives brings up a shed-load of negative emotions. This can be true for friends and family as well, who worry and wonder how to treat those who are struggling with food issues.
If you are suffering from an eating disorder, here are some ideas that you may be able to adapt to help you get through:
Honesty is your best defence
Tell whoever is cooking what you would prefer to eat. If that is too difficult, get a family member, who understands what you are going through, to do it for you.
You don’t have to prove anything to anyone and, if you prepare people in advance, it will avoid awkward conversations arising that end up with you being the centre of attention. It will be more important for your friends and family to have you with them, even with a tiny bit of turkey on your plate.
Visualise the days ahead, taking one day at a time, and write down any helpful ideas that come to you so that you don’t spend hours worrying about the same situation. Think about all the meals which are going to be different from your normal routine and how you can cope with portion sizes. Be honest about asking if you can serve yourself rather than just taking what is given to you. This will help you to feel in control of your choices. Perhaps discuss in advance with the cook to plan serving etc.
Don’t restrict yourself before and afterwards
If you starve yourself before Christmas to compensate for what’s ahead you are setting yourself up for a massive binge. Try to keep as normal as possible. If you usually have breakfast, don’t stop. You need to keep your blood sugars balanced to give you mental energy for coping with anything that comes. If you have planned what you are going to say, in response to the comments you fear most, you may even find yourself having fun!
Think of the bigger picture and remember that Christmas is a maximum of 3 or 4 days out of 365. If it doesn’t go well – it’s OK. Treat yourself with compassion, and get up and try another day.
If a member of your family, or a friend, is suffering from an eating disorder, here are some things you can do to lessen the stress:
Share helpful information
If possible send for a copy of Do’s and Don’ts for Carers available through our website www.tastelifeuk.org, and brief close family members before the festivities start. At the very least, try not to make comments about eating habits which will make the person feel the centre of attention. Try to act as normally as possible and DON’T watch every mouthful they take! Now is not the time to talk about body shapes. Offer protection to your ‘sufferer’ if they want it – eg sitting next to them in big family gatherings.
No dieting talk!
‘I’ll have to go on a diet after Christmas,’ said by you or other members of the family is very unhelpful. In fact, all conversation about food such as, ‘No, I mustn’t have another one,’ or, ‘I’ve had far too much already’ are like a red rag to a bull for someone with an eating disorder. Steer conversations away from too much focus on food and congratulating the cook. Warn relations not to comment on food consumption, or body shapes, if you think this is a possibility. Keep the chat to what people have been up to or light current affairs. Leave sweets, mince pies, chocolate etc. away from the coffee table where everyone is, as this will be unsettling for anyone struggling with food. Have some other foods, like grapes, nuts, seeds or satsumas as well.
Perhaps break up major meal times, and allow it to be more relaxed. Aim for a good range of food so all can make their own choices. Let people serve themselves. This can be helpful for everyone, and it takes out the fear of being faced with a pile of scary food for those who are struggling. It’s easier to cope with when we have choices rather than someone else making choices for us. And keep your mouth shut about each other’s choices. This is not the time.
It’s just a meal or two. See it as a bit of a time of truce. Just get through it.
Keep calm and carry on as normal
Planning activities like going for a walk or playing fun family games are great. If you are going to play something like charades, warn the person with an eating disorder in advance so that they can work out how they are going to cope with being the centre of attention when it is their turn.
Keep your perspective
Tell yourself it doesn’t matter what is eaten, and that after Christmas will be the time to face the difficult issues again. Try and find ways to celebrate together anyway, no matter how the meals go. Treat yourself and others with compassion.