The season of holidays has begun and we are all preparing for the next holiday, Thanksgiving.
While many of us look forward to seeing family, watching football, and sharing a meal with others, those who struggle with an eating disorder have probably been dreading this day for several months. Offering support to loved ones can bring up a lot of fear because we don’t want to add any more stress or discomfort to the day. So how can we help our loved one?
Here are a few tips to support loved ones with an eating disorder during Thanksgiving:
- The struggle is real.
Yes, this is truly a difficult holiday for those that are struggling with an eating disorder. Imagine you were asked to confront your worst fear in front of a group of people you probably haven’t seen in a year and who are most obviously eyeing you like hawks. You probably don’t understand what your loved one is going through as they sit at the Thanksgiving table with a plate of food in front of them.
How to support your loved one: First, don’t pressure your loved one. They’re doing the best they can today. If you notice that they are struggling, which most likely will happen, validate that what they’re doing is difficult and ask privately if there’s anything you can offer that would feel supportive.
- Overeating does not equal bingeing.
Let’s get some clarity around what it probably means when they say they are going to “binge” on Thanksgiving. It probably means they are planning on indulging in all the deliciousness that is Thanksgiving. They will probably, deliberately and consciously, eat the green bean casserole and enjoy it. They will probably enjoy all of the 12 varieties of pie that are part of their families’ Thanksgiving traditions. They will also probably feel a little physically uncomfortable and proceed to lay on the couch and be distracted by football…or doze off trying to watch football.
This is NOT a binge according to the DSM-5 and a painful experience by those who struggle with binge eating disorder. Those who actually binge probably do not enjoy the food that they eat; they may not even remember the process of eating the large amount of food that they consumed in a short period of time. Those who actually binge often feel out of control and literally unable to stop eating, while in an almost trance-like state. The thing about a real binge is that you probably will never even see it happening; it is perceived by the person binging to be so shameful and embarrassing that it must be secret and hidden.
How to support your loved one: Be mindful of your words around Thanksgiving and holidays. You never know who is sitting around your table and how certain words and comments can be triggering to those struggling. You probably did not “binge.” You’ve probably just eaten more than what felt physically comfortable. Instead of focusing on the amount of food that was consumed, maybe you could talk about the wonderful tastes of the season and thank the chef for preparing the dish with love for all to enjoy.
- You might be sharing the meal with your loved one’s eating disorder.
On the journey towards recovery, it’s helpful for clients to view their eating disorder as a separate entity that has taken over their minds and body. This is helpful to separate out ED’s voice and thoughts from their true self. Keep in mind your loved one might be malnourished, tired, anxious, depressed, or all of the above, which adds fuel to ED voice fire.
How to support your loved one: Do your best not to react when you notice that you are having dinner with ED and not your loved one. If possible, gently ask if ED would like to not be at the table so you can chat with your loved one. Then ask if there is any support they might need at the moment. Let them know that you support them, and if they need a pause from the table, that is perfectly fine.
- Stop overthinking it.
Take a deep breath and trust your gut. Our loved ones know us VERY well and know when we are not being ourselves and holding back. You will not be perfect and the main idea is to get back to normal meals eventually.
How to support your loved one: Talk with your loved one before the Thanksgiving meal and ask how they would like to be supported, and how the entire family can be “normal” around the meal, yet be supportive. Having open conversations has been helpful for some clients prior to a meal to lower expectations and to keep everyone on the same page.
- What Thanksgiving is REALLY about
Thanksgiving is about being thankful and surrounding yourself with those you love and appreciate your time together. Thanksgiving isn’t about the food itself, rather it’s a celebration of the season.
How to support your loved one: In place of talking about food, try to talk about what everyone is thankful for. Shifting the focus from what we eat to being thankful can help your loved one not feel as triggered about the meal.
Eating disorder recovery is a process, and you deserve every bit of support that you can get! It all starts here.
Whether you are looking for some one-on-one help, or are looking for a community of others who are going through recovery, we are here to support you!
Adrien Paczosa is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian practicing in Austin, Texas and the surrounding counties.
She is the owner and founder of I Live Well Nutrition her Dietitian practice which started in 2007 and serves clients in the Austin, Texas area in two locations. Fearless Practitioners, the division of her business that offers training to dietitians and wellness professionals.