Holidays: Supporting a Loved One With an Eating Disorder


‘Tis the season when so many different holidays are being celebrated around the world. From Thanksgiving to Hanukkah, to Rosh Hashanah, to Christmas, there are so many holidays being celebrated. Most holidays have some elements in common—traditions being observed and celebrated with family and food. While this is a joyous time for many, those with eating disorders can find it to be challenging to navigate these celebrations given the unique stressors that individuals with eating disorders face.

If you’re looking for how to best support a loved one, first, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone who has an eating disorder is going to be at a different spot in their recovery. Some may be just starting their recovery journey, others may be further along. It will be important for you to know that different people will need different support depending on where they are in their recovery. Having a conversation with your loved one may help clarify their needs and set you both up for better success.

Eating disordered behaviors include overeating/binging, restricting food intake, purging food, and overexercising, just to name a few. Regardless of an individual’s stage in their recovery, urges to engage in eating disorder behaviors may arise, along with distressing thoughts about food, body image, and so on. Individuals who struggle with eating disorders may be feeling anxiety, guilt, shame, and so much more, particularly during holiday get togethers that often center around food.

There are multiple ways that holidays tend to center around food—discussions about the type of food being served, time spent eating around other people, fasting traditions, and talking about food and restricting (e.g., “I’m not going to eat all day to make room for Thanksgiving dinner”). In addition, during the holiday season, there often are additional stressors like traveling, being around family one has not seen in a while, having to cope with comments about how one’s body has changed, being in environments that may be triggering, having to hear talk about dieting and resolutions, and being around substances. The list can go on and on. Therefore, individuals with eating disorders basically find themselves in an emotional minefield trying to navigate all these stressors.

Family by Christmas Tree

One way to support someone in their journey can be by respecting their boundaries. Many with eating disorders find it helpful to set realistic goals for themselves depending on their readiness. They may set goals on their own or with the help of a therapist. As a loved one of someone with an eating disorder, respect where that person is. If someone is just starting the journey toward recovery, that person may choose to limit how they celebrate holidays—maybe choosing to not go to Christmas dinner, or choosing to not stay for the meal. Others may choose to set boundaries with family members regarding the food being served, or when asking questions about their appearance or body, or when having conversations regarding weight, dieting, and restriction. If your family, for example, runs a 5k on Thanksgiving, they may choose to not participate. For holidays where fasting is expected, like Karva Chauth, someone with an eating disorder may not be able to fast in a healthy and safe way, so they may choose to not participate in that while they’re in recovery. Whatever the case may be for your loved one, respect their decision and offer support to them in whatever way makes sense for your relationship.

It may be beneficial to talk to your loved one about how you can best support them and come up with some ideas together. These may be a good starting point:

  • Form a cope ahead plan with your loved one, or follow the one they make with their therapist.
    • This can include coaching families on boundaries and how to respond to activating conversations.
      •  Some examples of this are: not making comments about themselves, their own bodies, food choices, and exercise habits.
  • It may also include following a meal plan of some sort with coping skills to help mitigate what might get in the way of them following that meal plan
  • You may also want to educate yourself on eating disorders so you can better understand what
    your loved one is experiencing.

    •  If they’re comfortable with this, help them check the facts concerning eating on the particular holiday. Remind them that the impact of the holiday eating is going to have little to no effect on the big picture.
    • Finally, you can do this all the time, but particularly around the holidays—refrain from making judgmental statements about food and your body, as well as anyone else’s body.
      • Refrain from statements like:
        • “Oh wow, I’m going to have to work out extra tomorrow to get rid of all this.”
        •  “This ___ (food item) is so bad and fattening.”
        • “I’m back on my diet tomorrow!”
        • “I’m looking so fat”
        • “Did you see so-and-so? They’ve gained or lost so much weight!”

Holidays can be a joyous and happy time for many. They can also be incredibly triggering. Having additional support can be incredibly helpful for those managing eating disorders. Less judgmental comments and added encouragement can make all the difference.

About the Author
Maria Mangione (she/her), M.A., LPCC is a licensed clinical counselor that specializes in dialectical behavior therapy. Maria works to help people develop the tools they need to develop trust in themselves and build their life worth living. Maria believes in having meaningful connections with her clients and believes that therapy and healing can be fun. Click Here to learn more about Maria’s experience and therapeutic style.

Further Information
The Eating Recovery Center provides information about eating disorder treatment.