Managing Holiday Meals When You Have an Eating Disorder

Hand carving turkey

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Holiday get-togethers, while festive, can be pressure-filled and stressful—especially for those who have eating disorders. Eating disorders can make holiday meals extra challenging or a time of dread, even provoking a worsening of symptoms.

However, the holiday feast doesn’t have to be an ordeal for those with an eating disorder. With appropriate pre-holiday planning and meal-day strategies, eating challenges and anxiety can be managed—and the celebratory dinner can be enjoyed.

Why Holiday Meals May Be Triggering

Studies show that stressful situations like holiday meals can be potent triggers for those with eating disorders. In fact, research shows that the brains of women with bulimia respond differently to food when under stress than those without bulimia, indicating that people with bulimia may eat to avoid negative feelings, especially in anxiety-provoking environments like holiday dinners.

In fact, the very design of holiday meals seems to increase the likelihood of holiday binging. It's a given that many Americans spend days leading up to Thanksgiving getting excited or fretting about overeating at the meal. But while overindulging on Thanksgiving may be a yearly guilty pleasure for some, for those with eating disorders the stress of either abstaining or giving in to this gleefully gluttonous ritual may cause more disordered eating. People with eating disorders also have increased anxiety leading up to the holiday meal as they don't know how they are going to be able to "hide" their disordered behaviors.

The culture of a Thanksgiving feast is akin to a culturally acceptable binge.

Coping Strategies

Many people, especially those with eating disorders, end up feeling worse about themselves after overindulging at holiday meals—or stressing about doing so. It doesn't have to be that way. Instead, follow the suggestions below to help you manage your eating disorder during these festive celebrations.

Avoid Fasting Before the Meal

Aim to eat normally leading up to the holiday. Many people anticipate the holiday table by restricting their consumption prior to the big meal, sometimes for days leading up to it. The idea is to go into a calorie deficit to offset the calories they are going to eat at the holiday dinner. But this plan is likely to fail. More often, the more you restrict yourself leading up to the meal, the more likely you are to overeat at the meal. 

Our bodies, in most cases, will appropriately override attempts at restriction. Studies have shown that when people restrict food intake, they have more trouble resisting food—even the food they didn't intend to eat—than non-dieters do, especially in stressful situations. Instead, practice the opposite of restriction and eat normally throughout the day, including a balanced lunch and a snack in the afternoon.

If you don’t go into your holiday dinner famished or plan to be overly restrictive during the meal, you will be more able to make thoughtful, less-fraught decisions about what you choose to eat. Plus, studies show that people who aren't as strict about dieting on weekends or holidays have better long-term success in maintaining their weight.

Pre-Plan Your Plate

Plan ahead to eat a balanced meal. For those with disordered eating or eating disorders, it can be helpful to think about the meal ahead of time and specifically map out what you are going to eat. Families often follow a similar menu every year, so it's usually not hard to anticipate the foods that may be served.

Take time before the event to envision a balanced plate including all the major food groups (starch, protein, vegetable, fruit, dairy, and fat). Plan for a normal portion of dessert as well. Thinking about these choices ahead of time in a practical way may reduce impulse eating when you're at the table. In fact, research shows that meal planning is associated with a healthier diet and lower rates of obesity.

Pre-planning your plate can also decrease anxiety before and during the meal by helping you feel more in control rather than going into the meal unprepared (which feels out of control). 

If you are not sure what will be on the menu, ask the host so you can develop a plan. If it is a potluck, bring something you will enjoy eating.

Counter All-or-Nothing Thinking

Be aware of your own black-and-white thoughts and negative self-talk about food—and challenge them. Many people actively classify their eating behavior as either “being good” or “being bad.” But the reasoning that if they are not restricting or “being good,” they might as well just give up all control and binge is faulty.

Research shows that this is a self-defeating choice that actually promotes unhealthy eating and holiday overindulgence. Just because it is a holiday doesn’t mean you need to overeat. On the other hand, it's not the end of the world if you do.

The key is that getting an extra serving of something doesn't need to snowball into eating each dish to excess. A good middle ground is to indulge in what you truly love and practice moderation with the rest, while practicing self-kindness.

Reject a Scarcity Mindset

Remind yourself that you can eat these foods again. The belief that the holiday is the only time you’ll be able to have these foods reinforces an all-or-nothing mentality. Remind yourself that this type of food, while typical to this special occasion, can be had at other times. For example, maybe you can enjoy leftovers the next day. You could also make some of your favorite holiday dishes on your own at another time.

Look Before You Choose

Take a look at the foods offered before plating up. For a buffet, do an initial walkthrough before getting food. This strategy lets you see everything and make your choices without the pressure of being in the line. Viewing all the dishes before making decisions lets you prioritize the items you want most before loading up your plate with other items that may be less appealing. This also allows you to feel prepared when you get in the line and feel more in control in the moment.

For example, choose one protein, one starch, and so on. Make one complete, composed plate—as opposed to going back several times to try all the available foods. Seeing everything you intend to eat on the plate at one time will help you to keep track of how much you are eating. Do the same with dessert. Survey all the desserts first and then choose one or two to eat, or consider smaller samples of three or more. 

Giving yourself permission to enjoy the meal in a measured way can help reduce anxiety and increase pleasure in the holiday meal by letting you feel both in control and celebratory.

Pace Yourself

Try to pace yourself while eating, pausing periodically to put your fork down and to drink a beverage. Aim to really enjoy what you are eating, without judgment. Pay attention to your satiety and stop before you get too full.

Sometimes, it is hard to stop when eating food that tastes good. Be mindful of the feeling of disappointment you experience when you decide to stop eating something that tastes good. Sit with the feeling rather than erasing it with food; most likely it will pass in a few minutes. 

Studies have shown that eating more slowly is an effective strategy for eating less—and results in a greater feeling of fullness.

Limit Alcohol

While a drink or two may make your meal more festive, it can be helpful to not drink much more than that. Drinking goes hand-in-hand with lowered inhibitions, self-control, and decision-making. In fact, studies show that many people are more prone to overeating after drinking, particularly those who are trying to watch their food intake.

Enjoy Your Meal

Celebrations should be enjoyed, so don't expect yourself to eat too stringently. Instead, embrace eating a slightly larger meal, if that's what you want to do. Know that you can splurge on generous portions without wrecking your healthy eating goals. Freely taking part in holiday meals is a way of connecting with others—and eating more indulgently on these occasions is normal and won’t adversely affect your health.

Additionally, studies indicate that you're likely to eat similar amounts as those that you dine with. So, if you're concerned about overeating, it can help (and boost your enjoyment of the meal) to celebrate the holiday with like-minded eaters.

A Word From Verywell

Your holiday meal (and what you ate or did not eat) may not live up to exactly what you envisioned. But while it's unlikely that you can eliminate all trepidation about your holiday meal—or that everything will go smoothly—know that a lot of people are in the same boat. You are not being defined by what you eat or don't eat, or how much you eat. Just do your best, be kind to yourself, and remember it's one meal. Give yourself a reset the next day to care for your mental health and reestablish healthier eating patterns—and get support from a counselor if more help is needed.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • National Institute of Mental Health. Eating disorders. Reviewed February 2016.