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10 Tips for Navigating Thanksgiving in Eating Disorder Recovery

By: Alison Ross, LMFT, CEDS

Thanksgiving is a special time for many - a time to be grateful, connect with loved ones, and enjoy delicious food. But for those who struggle with an eating disorder, this holiday can be incredibly challenging. It can bring on anxiety, disordered eating, self-judgment, and feelings of isolation. The focus on food during the holiday can be especially tough for those battling an eating disorder. It can intensify the daily struggles they face. A spread of Thanksgiving food can become a battleground, where a person's inner conflict between craving and fearing food plays out. The sights and smells of holiday food can trigger disordered eating patterns, leaving a person feeling out of control, anxious, and alone. And, the preoccupation with food can hinder the sense of connection and community that the holiday is meant to bring. But it is possible to navigate the tricky food landscape of Thanksgiving with your recovery intact when you engage in support and self-care strategies. Here are ten tips to help you navigate the challenging food aspect of Thanksgiving while on your journey to recovery.

  1. Be Food-Flexible: No one has a perfect diet, not even those who have recovered from eating disorders. Sometimes we eat too much or too little, and that's okay. During a holiday week, it's helpful to give yourself some flexibility and leeway. Holiday food is meant to be enjoyed, not to test your willpower. If you happen to under or overeat during the holiday week, be gentle with yourself. Instead of dwelling on perceived mistakes, focus on what you did well and what you're thankful for during the holiday week.

  2. Stay Connected: It can be tempting to isolate during the holiday season when struggling with an eating disorder. But remember that connection is a crucial part of recovery. Reach out to friends or family members who understand and support your journey, make plans to spend time together, or plan to support each other by text or phone throughout the holiday week. Also, seek regular connection with a person, place, thing, or animal that makes you feel comfortable and safe. This could be spending time with a relative, finding solace in a specific location that brings you peace, engaging in a hobby or activity that you love, or being near a pet that provides unconditional love and companionship. Some people find comfort in spiritual connections, drawing strength from their faith or finding solace in nature. Even forging a deeper connection with yourself, through mindfulness or self-reflection, can keep your recovery strong through the holiday week. These connections contribute to a feeling of being grounded and accepted and can reduce the urge to engage in disordered eating behaviors.

  3. Nourish Yourself Generously: During my own recovery, I learned that there is a direct correlation between my nutritional status and my ability to regulate my eating. In general, the better nourished we are, the less likely we are to lose eating control. During the holiday week, you can use this knowledge to help you reduce emotional and binge-eating episodes. In addition to enjoying holiday food, make an effort to fuel your body with lots of nutrient-dense foods, representing all food groups - proteins, dairy, fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.

  4. Eat Regularly: Many people with eating disorders make the mistake of skipping meals and avoiding food in advance of a holiday meal, but this is often counterproductive as it can create extreme hunger that keeps eating disorder dynamics in motion. Regular intake of nutritious foods leading up to a holiday meal can prevent this. A good approach during a holiday week is to maintain a schedule of eating three meals and two to three snacks per day. If you've worked out a food plan with your eating disorder dietitian, the holiday week is the perfect time to lean on it as a friendly guide for self-nourishment.

  5. Permit Yourself to Enjoy Holiday Food: Thanksgiving involves savoring special and culturally significant foods. So, go ahead and enjoy them! Restricting or denying yourself the foods you love can lead to stronger cravings and put you at higher risk for emotional eating and binge episodes, especially for those with eating disorders. Finding a good balance is key. One approach is to follow the 80/20 guideline: focus on nourishing your body with 80% of foods that offer high nutritional value, while leaving 20% for those festive favorites that may be less nutritious. Enjoy the best of both worlds!

  6. Eat Mindfully (Try the 5 Ss): The practice of mindful eating can help you regulate your eating during the holidays. It involves slowing down, savoring every bite, and fully experiencing the flavors, textures and smells of your food. This practice not only makes the eating experience more satisfying but also engages the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for decision-making and self-regulation. This helps in controlling impulses and aids in regulating your eating. A simple technique to practice mindful eating is the '5 Ss' approach. First, Sit down to eat, preferably at a table. Secondly, Slowly chew your food, paying attention to its taste and texture. Thirdly, Savor every mouthful, enjoying the experience of eating. Fourth, Simplify your eating environment, avoiding multi-tasking or eating in front of a screen (or, during a holiday meal, take time to enjoy the company in between bites). Finally, Smile between bites, taking a moment to appreciate the food you are consuming.

  7. Practice Gratitude: Thanksgiving, at its core, is a holiday centered around expressing gratitude. This mindset can be beneficial when dealing with an eating disorder as it allows for a shift of focus away from worries and onto the things we are appreciative of in life. Gratitude has been shown to help calm the nervous system, reducing stress levels and thus aiding in reducing disordered eating patterns. Implementing a daily practice of identifying five things you are grateful for is a practical way to cultivate this mindset. These could be seemingly little things like a warm cup of coffee in the morning, an uplifting conversation with a friend, or even the sun shining through your window. Or they could be more significant aspects such as your health, supportive relationships, or personal accomplishments. The act of gratitude forces us to slow down and appreciate what we have, grounding us in the present moment, which can reduce anxiety and create a positive shift in our attitudes towards our bodies and food. Remember, gratitude is a practice; it becomes more natural the more you do it, and the benefits will grow over time.

  8. Manage Leftovers Strategically: Leftovers from holiday meals can either be a blessing or a challenge, depending on where you are in your recovery journey. For some, having an abundance of holiday foods in the house can trigger binge or emotional eating patterns. In this case, it can be helpful to distribute leftovers among guests, freeze portions for later, or donate food where possible. However, for others, keeping leftovers can actually reduce the risk of these behaviors. Knowing that a favorite food will be available again can minimize feelings of scarcity and reduce the urge to overeat. The key is to understand what's best for you this year and adopt a strategy that supports your recovery effectively.

  9. Establish Your Boundaries: Navigating relationships during the holiday season can be tricky, especially with friends or relatives who may not understand your recovery journey. Their comments about food, weight, or appearance can be triggering, and the dynamics of certain relationships may be stressful. Always remember that your boundaries are there to serve as protective barriers to your well-being. Establishing boundaries can be internal, such as mentally distancing yourself from harmful comments, or external, like actively expressing your needs. For instance, if a relative starts discussing diets during dinner, you can internally remind yourself that their opinions are a reflection of them, and have little to do with you. Externally, you might politely ask them to change the topic, or you may excuse yourself from the conversation altogether. Taking small breaks can also be beneficial, providing you with a chance to breathe, regroup, and create a safe space for yourself amidst any pressures you might be feeling. Exercising boundaries is a sign of internal strength and a commitment to self-care that can safeguard your mental space, and help you maintain a healthy perspective during the holiday season.

  10. When You Veer Off Course, Gently Correct Your Path: Picture this: if you miss your exit on the freeway, you wouldn't just keep driving forever, right? You'd take the next one. Well, during the holiday week, if you catch yourself slipping back into eating disorder mindsets or behaviors, don't just keep going. Instead, find the next exit. Every single moment is an opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to your recovery by consciously choosing a positive and self-caring next step. A good next step, after "missing your exit", is to be kind to yourself, let go of perfectionist thinking, engage in self-care, or reach out to a supportive person.

Remember, navigating the holidays while managing an eating disorder is not an easy feat, and it's okay to have moments of struggle. What's important is your commitment to recovery and the steps you are taking to maintain it. You are not alone in this journey. Countless others have walked this path and emerged stronger, and so will you. Use these strategies not only during the festive season but incorporate them into your daily life as well. Be gentle with yourself, celebrate your victories, no matter how small and keep forging ahead. Every step you take is a step towards a healthier and happier you. Keep going, keep growing, and keep believing in your strength and resilience. Happy Thanksgiving. 🙏🏼🌅🌸🌟


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