The Most Triggering Time of the Year

Eating Disorders and the Holiday Feast

For people like me — that is, people with eating disorders — managing daily life is difficult even on ordinary days. Food, a necessary part of our culture and routine, becomes an enemy and an obstacle, but a need nonetheless. When the holidays roll around, and our lives become centered around big meals with our loved ones for a couple nearly consecutive days a year, this can cause a lot of stress in our lives. Even on top of this stress, this year is particularly difficult. For many, this holiday season will be the first time they see their families in nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An editorial in the European Eating Disorders Review written by Stephen Touyz, Hubert Lacey, and Phillipa Hay wrote about the heavy toll the pandemic has had on people with various eating disorders. The trauma of a pandemic would likely trigger a lot of people with a history of these types of illnesses. Being socially isolated can make people with anorexia feel even more alone. Plus, a budget that keeps getting tighter can encourage people to skip meals. Many people who binge eat find themselves triggered by being at home around food all day and their binges likely cause financial stress in their lives. Last but not least, having more severe eating disorders lowers people’s immune system’s function which they will likely not be admitted until they are past the point where they would be under normal circumstances.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 14 million Americans will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. That’s nearly 1 in every 21 people. The Wiley Online Library published a piece about the implications of COVID for eating disorders, where they stated that spending more time on social media could be an instigating factor in triggering an ED and so could situations of stress or social isolation. In a pilot study cited in the Wiley Online Library piece, around 40% of patients with eating disorders noticed an increase in symptoms. Additionally, people helping their community is a highlighted way to avoid isolation (a common trigger). It is increasingly difficult to avoid social isolation when we are told that to help our community we must stay at home. Symptoms worsening can often mean that people’s weight, skin and teeth colour, and mood will change. In order to avoid making people uncomfortable, it’s essential for everyone to learn what behaviours can be triggering during the Christmas season, especially during a pandemic.

Alexis Conason is a psychologist and author of Eating Mindfully, as well as the founder of The Anti-Diet Plan. She wrote for Psychology Today, “There have been a number of research studies that show that people tend to eat more when they dine with others.” In this same article, she shares a story about a time that she had someone comment on how she’d “crack tomorrow” after she turned down the offer of a cookie during a trip. The line between overeating and restriction can be very blurry for someone struggling with an eating disorder. Turning down something like a cookie can be a sign of restriction if the person is hungry, but accepting one or more cookies when they’re already comfortably full could mean that person is binging. This is something that usually only those people can truly assess. It is important not to make comments about how much or how little someone is eating because it is impossible to know how full someone is or how easily they could get full. Avoiding these kinds of comments and ensuring others don’t make them either can make people with eating disorders more comfortable.

There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods, simply foods that are villainized and foods that are not. Although portion sizes matter, it is also important to avoid restricting types of foods. When people say that they’ve “been bad” for eating a certain food or suggest they will have to work out a lot as a punishment for a specific treat, they are perpetuating harmful ideals around food which can lead to disordered eating. This reads to people with eating disorders as an indication that certain foods cannot be consumed unless they wish to be seen as weak people with bad morals. Rewarding self restriction and an insistence on eating “good foods” (think “superfoods” or otherwise holy meals) can also have negative effects on the ways that people perceive themselves and how they are seen by their loved ones. Fatphobic views on the world tend to promote vocabulary that can be very triggering for people with eating disorders since both put fatness as the absolute worst trait a human could have. This is why it’s very important to not just avoid these conversations with people with eating disorders but also to unlearn this perspective that tends to make us believe that we owe a performance of traditional (skinny) beauty at any time in order to be considered a person worth love regardless of if you have an eating disorder or not.

During holiday dinners, it is normal for people to eat more than in their daily lives. When people only see eachother once a year or on special occasions, it can be important to make a good impression for some people. When people equate big portions or certain foods to being “bad” morally, we discourage people from enjoying an intentionally unique meal. After all, Christmas only comes once a year. Instead, these people can feel self conscious which would prevent them from bonding with others and further encourage social isolation. This is what led to the advice that is commonly heard from eating disorder specialists and social media anti-diet pages: “keep your eyes on your own plate.” Although this advice is often given to people struggling with eating disorders, it can also be applied to the people around them and it is important to learn how you can help those around you.

Avoiding comments that compare the content of your plate with that of other people (or avoiding drawing attention to your plate at all) can really help make dining a more pleasant experience to people with eating disorders around you. It is also important to work against the pro-diet culture comments that your loved ones could make over the holiday season or in their daily lives. This is typically a signal to folks in recovery that you are someone worth their trust and it can help them feel safe around you. Although I tend to go for a blank stare and a “I hope you never bear offspring” since it tends to make people laugh uncomfortably and reduce those kinds of comments around me, there are definitely more constructive ways to stand up to this mindset. Consider how you would respond if someone was bothering someone with a physical disability about it. If you saw someone asking someone in a wheelchair why they aren’t walking, or someone with Tourette’s why they are moving so much, you’d likely tell them to leave. How is asking someone about their portion sizes or their eating habits any different?

Instead of asking “you’re getting another serving?” or “are you sure you’re full?” try not asking anything. Instead of saying you’re “being bad” after getting dessert, just enjoy the food you want to eat! Instead of making comments on people’s bodies at all — even comments which you consider compliments (“your cousin looked so skinny today!” “your ass looks amazing!” and so on) — consider, kindly, shutting up. It is impossible to know which of these comments will trigger people around you and which will not. Discourage conversations that glorify diet culture or center around food or bodies and instead encourage conversations around pretty much anything else. If nothing seems to work, suggest watching a movie to reduce conversations overall or offer an alternative area where people can eat to avoid listening to these kinds of conversations. This may seem like something of little value (or maybe even an annoying thing to do), but changes like these can radically change the dining experience for people recovering from eating disorders.

Mexican senior at The King’s College.