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Thompson: When food isn’t festive: Navigating the holidays with an eating disorder
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Caryn Thompson, CPS-P

The holidays can be a joyous time, fun and merriment can be had by all. It is a time to spread cheer, to slow down for a bit to see our family and friends we may not have had the chance to throughout the rest of the year … and then there is the food.  The holiday season is wrapped around meeting and eating. This is true of the world, but especially in the south. You walk into any southern home during the holiday season and the kitchen is buzzing with activity, the tables are piled high with platters, and the smells….oh, the smells, they can be a wonder to behold.  When you are living with an eating disorder, sometimes the wonder of the season turns into anxiety and dread. You can lose the holiday joy when you are wrapped up in the loneliness that is your illness. Luckily there are ways that loved ones can help support. 

Before getting to our holiday tips for loved ones, we need to break down a few stereotypes about eating disorders.  Most often, people assume that eating disorders are only found among young, thin, girls…this is not true. The three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating. Both men and women are affected and age is not a deciding factor. It is more common for the disorder to start young and carry into adulthood, however, there are cases where eating disorders have begun in adulthood, as well. You do not have to be thin to have anorexia or bulimia, and you do not have to be heavy to have a binge eating disorder. Everybody’s bodies are different, their metabolism is different. More often than not, these disorders are not about food or weight, they have underlying factors. These can be trauma, control, emotional needs, or a whole host of other psychological challenges. 

If you have a loved one who is living with these challenges, you may find that the holidays can be a struggle. With hope, your loved one is getting the medical assistance they require, however, there are ways you can help them get through the holidays a bit easier this year.

  1. Reduce attendance pressure for events – Use of words like we ‘expect’ you to be there or a statement like ‘grandma would be heartbroken if you weren’t there’ adds expectations and guilt to an event that is supposed to be family fun.  Allow your loved one to make the decision to attend on their own, if it is something they are emotionally strong enough to do. Control is what most people are seeking with an eating disorder, by allowing them to make a decision; you are providing them with that control. 
  2. If your loved one does attend, do not monitor their food intake – This goes for any type of eating disorder. If your loved one is not eating, forcing food on them may cause anxiety. Some people who live with eating disorders shy away from eating publicly. If your loved one has a plate piled high, food shaming them is not helpful. Look around the room, everyone in attendance probably has a plate piled high. 
  3. If you’re planning a family intervention, plan again – Holiday events are time for joyous family love. When talking to your loved one about their eating disorder, the time to discuss mental health challenges is a quiet and private reflective moment that you set aside between the two of you. You may want to include another family member who can be supportive, but in the middle of a holiday party is not the place or time.  Once you have done this on a holiday, with everyone, your loved one has now become an anecdote for years to come.  The intervention itself can be traumatic and damaging. On top of that, your loved one will always associate it with a holiday memory.

The most important tip for assisting your loved ones through the holidays is to simply be present in their lives, whether they are at your events or not. Show up for them so they know how loved they are this season and the whole year through. 

Caryn Thompson is a mental health advocate and ally. She is trained by the GA Department of Behavior Health and Developmental Disabilities as a Certified Peer Specialist- Parent and works closely with NAMI GA (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Locally, she and her husband, Michael, facilitate caregiver support groups in Rockdale and Newton Counties.  For more information go to  Ms. Thompson has been living with her eating disorder since the age of 12 and in recovery since the age of 30. For more information on eating disorders, go to