TORONTO, Dec. 19, 2023—The holiday season is often difficult for people with disordered eating habits or an eating disorder. Many holiday celebrations are centred on making and eating food, often more and/or different food than usual. Additionally, eating with people you don’t usually eat with, visiting with people you haven’t seen in a while and the potential for others to comment on food and bodies can be overwhelming for people who struggle with food.
The National Eating Disorder Information Centre estimates that, at any given time, between 840,000 and 1.75 million Canadians have symptoms of eating disorders, ranging from a clinically diagnosed disorder such as anorexia or bulimia to what is known as disordered eating, which includes occasional binging, restricting or purging behaviours.
Dr. Karen Trollope-Kumar, an eating disorder physician and founder of the Hamilton-based Body Brave clinic for disordered eating, said food and body image anxieties around the holidays are common.
“So many of our clients find the holidays a stressful time,” she said. “We run several sessions dedicated to handling the holidays because they can be such a difficult time. People should not feel alone or ashamed of this.”
Dr. Kumar said there are things people with disordered eating or eating disorders can do to ease some of the stress:
You should ensure there is at least one food on the table that you like and feel safe eating. Contact the host in advance to find out what they plan to serve or offer to bring something for everyone.
What will you do if someone makes a comment about your body or what’s on your plate? It’s best to decide if you will draw a boundary and stick to it, or if you prefer a less confrontational approach of ignoring the comment and changing the subject. Dr. Trollope-Kumar’s recommended response to these comments is “my body and/or my food is not up for discussion.”
Knowing that there is someone present you can trust and who understands your sensitivity to food is extremely reassuring. Let this person know what your concerns are about the meal so they can offer reassurance during mealtime and/or steer conversations away from food and body.
If you feel overwhelmed while eating, it’s OK to take breaks. You can either put your utensils down and take some deep breaths or excuse yourself for a few minutes. It may also help to plan what time you will leave so you can look forward to an end to the stress you may feel in the moment.
Avoid urges to purge after eating by keeping yourself busy. Consider going for a walk, playing a game or keeping close to someone who you trust to help keep you safe. “The uncomfortable feeling will usually go away within 45 minutes or so,” Dr. Trollope-Kumar said.
Do your best to focus on the event rather than the food. It is a special time to be with loved ones so focus on the festivities as much as you can.
This season many people will attend a meal with someone who struggles with disordered eating or an eating disorder. Dr. Trollope-Kumar recommends three ways to support someone you know or suspect struggles with food triggers:
If you know someone struggles with food, ask them how you can best support them or make them as comfortable as possible. If you suspect someone might be struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, consider speaking generally about how you understand that holiday meals can be difficult for people. Communicate your awareness of food issues and willingness to be supportive without making accusations or implications. The person may feel comfortable sharing their concerns with you. If not, do not press them to talk about it.
Do not make any comments about anyone’s food choices, weight or body, including your own. Your comments, even if you intend them to be positive, may be triggering to someone. You don’t know the rationale behind people’s food decisions or the reasons their body looks the way it does. You also don’t know how comments about your body or food choices might trigger someone. Instead, Dr. Trollope-Kumar recommends “it’s great to share a meal together” or “so great to see you again” as more appropriate remarks.
If somebody communicates a food or body boundary it is important to respect it. For example, don’t discuss weight if someone has asked you not to, or don’t add something to someone’s plate if they say they don’t want it.
If you or someone you know needs eating disorder care this holiday season, Dr. Trollope-Kumar recommends searching the National Eating Disorder Information Centre website for care providers in your area. You should also consult your family doctor to ensure you maintain overall health.
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