Eating Disorders: 7 Ways to Help a Loved One at Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks and watch football. But it’s also a holiday surrounding food – making it, consuming it, talking about it…and then consuming more.

For people dealing with an eating disorder, this can be an understandably difficult time of year. The huge quantity of food, combined with the emotional baggage of being around one’s family, can lend itself to a host of psychological and emotional triggers. Simply put; Thanksgiving can be a nightmare if you’re struggling with an eating disorder.

In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically diagnosed eating disorder at some point in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).

With so many people affected, it’s highly likely that someone at your Thanksgiving table is either suffering from or in recovery from an eating disorder.

How Can You Help This Thanksgiving Holiday?

Obviously, you can’t have Thanksgiving without food. But as a friend or family member, there are some things you can do to help make this time of year easier for someone coping with an eating disorder.

  • #1 Don’t Comment on People’s Weight Gain or Loss

    You might think your friend or family member “looks great” because they’ve lost or gained weight. But for someone with an eating disorder, comments about their body can be triggering. The way someone looks on the outside is not necessarily a sign that they are doing or feeling well. Also, it’s simply not relevant to the holiday festivities!

    Shift your focus onto other aspects of their life – their job, friends, favorite TV shows or hobbies – and away from how their body looks.

  • #2 Shift Your Focus Away From Food

    “How do you like those brussels sprouts?” might seem like a benign question. But for someone dealing with an eating disorder, it can sound like prying or criticizing their eating habits or food choices.

    Talking about food can be stressful and uncomfortable for people who struggle with eating disorders. There is so much going on in the world, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a subject to discuss other than food.

  • #3 Stop Rationalizing Food Choices

    Even people who aren’t suffering from an eating disorder are known to obsess over food portions, food choices and body image. Comments like “I shouldn’t eat this!” and “I’ll go to the gym tomorrow to work it off” make for common dinner table conversation. For someone with an eating disorder, this kind of talk can trigger and validate an unhealthy line of thinking.

    When you say “I can eat this because I skipped breakfast,” you might be delivering the message that this kind of rationalizing is healthy and normal. And for your loved one, that’s a dangerous can of worms to open. Stop defending and rationalizing your food choices. Just enjoy your food and quality time with the family!

  • #4 Put Your Bathroom Scale Away

    For someone attempting to recover from an obsession with body weight, a bathroom scale is a ticking time bomb. So take a few seconds and pop it in the closet—because you could be saving your guest a whole lot of stress.

  • #5 Don’t Make “Jokes” About Eating Disorders

    This one is pretty self-explanatory but bears repeating. “I wish I were anorexic!” or “oh man, I feel a binge coming on!” aren’t cute or funny quips for someone with an eating disorder to hear. Sure, it’s fun to find humor in dark places. But there are plenty of other topics to mine for jokes—like major political figures, or dad’s suspenders—that are less likely to trigger a shame spiral.

  • #6 Plan Activities for Before and After Meals

    For someone with an eating disorder, negative thought cycling can get out of control before and after meals, not just during them. You can help by offering distractions and giving them tasks to do to keep their mind off food. Maybe organize a game of charades or a walk around the neighborhood.
    Many people in recovery find it soothing to be of service in this type of situation. So you might offer them tasks like dishwashing, napkin-folding, or enlist them to help out entertaining younger siblings or cousins. You could be helping them, while they help you!

  • #7 Don’t Make Observations or Try to Control What They Eat

    It’s natural to worry about someone with an eating disorder making healthy choices. But they are probably coping with enough food-related stress, and don’t need someone else to put pressure on them.

Finding Help and Support

For family members, it’s important to understand that you don’t need to enable a loved one’s behavior, especially if she’s putting herself at risk. If you’re worried and want to help, it’s always a good idea to seek out the help of an expert.

And if you’re looking for support, there are some really good options available to you, as well. Firstly, the National Eating Disorders Association has a toll-free helpline that you or your loved one can call. And on Twitter, the #Thx4Support hashtag will help connect people to experts and fellow sufferers on social media throughout Thanksgiving day.

Beyond directing someone to these resources, the best thing you can do is listen if she wants to talk. And remember; don’t make a scene or call unnecessary attention to her eating behaviors – especially in front of the whole family. Encourage her to seek help, support her through the healing process and make the next holiday gathering one of the happiest – and healthiest – your family has ever seen.

Additional Reading: How to Parent Healthy Body Image and Why it Matters

Image Source: iStock

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