Photo from theeatingdisordercenter.com
By Grace Dearing, Web Editor
With holiday gatherings largely centered around meals, this time of year can be incredibly intimidating and nerve-wracking for those who have a history of disordered eating. Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, founder of The Eating Disorder Center shares her tips on how to cope with that environment and support your loved ones:
Can you describe what disordered eating is and what it can look like?
Sure, disordered eating is essentially when you have an unhealthy relationship to food. So that can look like feeling shame or guilt after eating something, feeling like you need to compensate after eating something, feeling like you have to go to the gym or do a certain number of crunches or do other things to try to control your food intake. It can also look like binge eating or compulsive overeating. It can show up differently but often, some of the core underlying fears and issues are similar.
What is food freedom?
Food freedom is both being able to eat foods that you enjoy and to feel at peace with the food in the sense of giving yourself that unconditional permission to eat and to eat with attunement and mindfulness. I think the other element of it is freedom in your life. So, feeling more free and flexible with food and being adaptable. From my experience and my clients’ experiences, it enables you to have more spontaneity and joy overall in your life, and to really be present for important life moments. So it’s both about the food and changing your relationship to it and also about changing your relationship to life.
Why may the holidays be difficult for someone who is in recovery from an eating disorder or struggles with disordered eating?
Holiday meals are typically centered around the food; there’s often an abundance of food and potentially relatives and family members making comments on food and potentially on people’s weight. So I think that can be incredibly stressful for people in recovery, especially because it might be foods that they’re not eating as frequently, and things that feel scary or things that they’re afraid that they’re gonna binge on or compulsively overeat around. So I think it’s just a very triggering and stressful environment for a lot of people.
What advice or coping mechanisms can you suggest to those who are anxious about attending family meals?
I think, number one, having a buddy or support system, if possible. So, identifying somebody if you’re going to a gathering, who is going to be there who you can talk to, or who can distract you, or depending on your stage of recovery. [This person can] even plate your meal if you’re too anxious or struggling with that, and if there’s no one in person, having some friends that you can text. Diet culture is all around you so being able to vent to somebody who’s on the same page, as you I think, is really priceless.
I think also coming up with a plan. So, if you have a treatment team or a therapist, discuss a plan in advance on how you can cope and specifically what your goal is around the food. So maybe your goal is to let yourself enjoy dessert, have some pumpkin pie, and to honor your hunger and have the second plate if you’re feeling hungry. Having some kind of goal in mind, not just of what you want to eat, but also how you want to feel. It’s important to focus both on the food and making sure you’re getting enough and eating foods that you enjoy and being able to shift focus to the conversation and things that you’re grateful for.
How can friends and family be sure to support their loved ones who may be struggling?
I think refraining from diet talk, which can be things that people might not even realize are problematic, like saying, “I’m gonna have a treat tonight” or “I’m going to treat myself with some pumpkin pie” or “I’m being so bad because I’m having pumpkin pie.” Refraining from diet talk or referring to foods in moral terms (good, bad, sinful, healthy, unhealthy) and refraining from making comments about weight, weight gain or commenting on other people’s bodies is important. Comments about food in that way and comments about bodies can be incredibly triggering to loved ones with eating disorders.
Why do you think this is such an important topic that people should be educated on?
I think diet culture is so insidious in our culture, that many people don’t even know about it, including people who identify themselves as somebody who is interested in fighting oppression. They might not even be familiar with diet culture, as well as some of the roots of it in systemic forms of oppression and I think that it’s so common yet so toxic, and so harmful, and can keep so many people trapped, and then for other folks with the genetic vulnerability can actually trigger or exacerbate disorders.
What is one thing you would emphasize to someone who is struggling?
I think the main thing is the importance of reaching out for help if you’re struggling, and this idea of basically anyone who struggles with a difficult relationship to food and their body is 100% “sick enough.” So if you’re thinking about Thanksgiving and feeling really stressed or thinking you’re going to feel really guilty around the food, then maybe that’s an indicator that you would benefit from seeking some professional help.