This article was written by Maeve Hanan, Registered Dietitian and Director of Dietetically Speaking.
The festive season can be challenging for those who have a difficult relationship with food or who struggle with disordered eating, because food plays a central role during this time of celebration.
This article will go through some practical strategies to help you to prioritise and protect your relationship with food during the holiday season.
Put a Plan in Place
What you include in your festive food plan will very much depend on your needs. If you have a treatment team in place or if you work with any health professionals they can support you with this.
Examples of what this plan could include:
- Your coping mechanisms e.g. journalling, speaking to a loved one, breathing exercises, affirmations etc.
- Potential triggers to be aware of/prepared for e.g. I know the few days after Christmas are very triggering for me when there are a lot of fear foods around the house, so I will continue to eat regularly and avoid restriction, do some grounding activities, get support from my family to store this is a more helpful way and will plan nice activities that get me out of the house
- Who you will reach out to for support
- Your meal plan if you have one i.e. in the earlier stages of disordered eating recovery
- Any food challenges (if appropriate) e.g. I plan to try mince pies at least 3 times over the holidays and will rate how fearful I feel of this food out of 10 each time
- Any boundaries you need to set related to festive food e.g. asking others to speak about food neutrally (etc.)
Tap Into Your Support Network
Loneliness, isolation and suppressing emotions can worsen disordered eating, so it’s vital to reach out to your support network rather than struggling alone (1,2).
Your support network could include friends, family, support groups, health professionals and helplines like those provided by organizations such as the Beat Eating Disorder charity.
If you feel that you need additional support you can speak with your GP, a mental health professional and/or a Disordered Eating Specialist Dietitian.
Use Your Coping Mechanisms
It’s important to have a handful of coping mechanisms available to use, including a few quick options to use during stressful moments and also a few more time consuming options that can be used in a preventative and reflective way.
Examples of quick coping mechanisms include:
- A few deep breaths
- An affirmation or reassuring sentence e.g. this is difficult but I can get through it
- Relax your jaw
- Clench and release a part of your body e.g. fists
- Give yourself a hug
- Step outside for a breath of fresh air
- Concentrate on how many colours you can see or how many sounds you can hear around you
Examples of longer-form coping mechanisms include:
- A guided meditiation
- A walk
- A bath
- Speaking with a loved one or health professional
Eating regularly without rules or restrictions is so important for fuelling and nourishing your body, consistent energy levels, avoiding hangriness, supporting digestive health, reducing the risk of disordered eating and more.
Restricting specific foods can also be a slippery slope leading to food anxiety and preoccupation and disordered behaviours like binge eating and purging.
So if you notice an urge to skip meals, follow food rules or compensate for what you have eaten over the festive period it’s best to notice this and then remind yourself that:
- Restriction is disordered and unhelpful
- You need to eat regularly every day — even when you feel you have eaten more than usual that day or the day before etc.
In order to do this you might need to follow the 3-3-3 guideline of 3 meals and 3 snacks, eating roughly every 3 hours. Or you may have a specific meal plan to follow from your Disordered Eating Specialist Dietitian.
Give Yourself Permission to Enjoy Festive Food
Enjoyment, creating memories and fostering a flexible relationship with food are just as important as nutritional intake.
Also, viewing certain foods as ‘bad’, ‘naughty’ or ‘guilty’ options etc. can be harmful for your relationship with food. For example, seeing chocolate cake as a guilty option rather than as a celebration food has been linked with comfort eating and feeling out of control with food (3).
So it’s crucial to give yourself permission to enjoy festive treats without guilt. This can be easier said than done if you struggle with food guilt or food anxiety, but practice and reassurance helps.
Things that might help include:
- Notice when negative food thoughts come up and see if you can label this and let it go e.g. I’m noticing the inner food critic right now or I’m noticing I’m thinking that I’m bad for eating those mince pies
- Create an affirmation to help with unconditional permission to eat e.g. No foods are good or bad and I deserve to enjoy festive foods
- Journalling about why it’s important to give yourself unconditional permission to eat
- See if you can reframe festive food anxiety into food gratitude e.g. Even though I’m feeling anxious right now, I’m also grateful for having access to tasty foods at Christmas
- Plan a food challenge with a food you struggle to be flexible with e.g. I will eat a handful of chocolates at least 4 times over the holidays
Establishing clear boundaries can play a very important role in protecting your wellbeing and relationship with food over the Christmas period.
This could include:
- Letting people know what support or accommodations for certain situations e.g. Open boxes of chocolates are a trigger food for me, so can these be put away and taken out again after meals
- Communicate explicit boundaries e.g. Please don’t label foods as good or bad in front of me
- Taking yourself away from a triggering situation or conversation
- Setting a boundary with yourself e.g. I will not weigh myself or I will unfollow unhelpful social media accounts
Remember, you may need to repeat boundaries a number of times before they are fully taken on board by another person.
Plan Non-Food Related Activities
While food is a significant aspect of Christmas, it’s not the sole focus.
So planning and enjoying non-food related activities can help to balance the celebrations and take some of the focus and pressure away from food if this feels overwhelming.
This could include:
- Christmas movie nights
- Carol singing
- Board games
- Wreath decorating
- Making Christmas decorations
- Christmas shopping
Although it’s understandable that you might find some aspects of the festive season challenging when it comes to food, there are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself and your relationship with food.
If you are interested in 1:1 support with your relationship with food you can set up a free discovery call with one of our Specialist Dietitians here.
- Levine, M. P. (2013). Loneliness and eating disorders. Loneliness Updated, 260-274. [accessed December 2023 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22303623/]
- Smith, K. E., Mason, T. B., Anderson, N. L., & Lavender, J. M. (2019). Unpacking cognitive emotion regulation in eating disorder psychopathology: The differential relationships between rumination, thought suppression, and eating disorder symptoms among men and women. Eating behaviors, 32, 95-100. [accessed December 2023 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30677597/]
- Kuijer, R. G., Boyce, J. A., & Marshall, E. M. (2015). Associating a prototypical forbidden food item with guilt or celebration: Relationships with indicators of (un) healthy eating and the moderating role of stress and depressive symptoms. Psychology & Health, 30(2), 203-217. [accessed December 2023 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25186250/]