Holidays tough for those with eating disorders

(article by Shawn Loughlin, The Citizen)

The holidays can be a time of excess. For many there are a large number of gifts under the tree and many are welcomed into countless feasts featuring dozens of different options.

For someone with an eating disorder, however, the holidays can be the most challenging time of the year.

Emily Wierenga, author of several books and daughter of Blyth’s Ernest Dow, pastor at Living Water Christian Fellowship, has had her struggles with eating disorders (anorexia nervosa) and she confirms that the holidays were a tough time for her, but there are ways to handle the temptation and not give in to symptoms of an eating disorder.

Wierenga says the reason the holidays are such a hard time for those with eating disorders is simple. It is a very emotional time of year, coupled with the fact that there is always plenty of food around during the holidays.

“There is always a lot of food combined with a lot of emotion,” Wierenga said in an interview with The Citizen from her Alberta home. “The holidays can be joyous times, but they can also be very lonely times for some people.”

With large feasts around every corner during the holidays, Wierenga says, someone who has struggled with food before has many pitfalls they have to be aware of. She says that portion control can be a particular concern to some people, while others can go the complete other way and binge eat and purge later.

“Portion size is easy for most people to figure out,” Wierenga said, “I still struggle with it, so in buffet lines I don’t know what to put on my plate so I’ll often copy the person in front of me.”

Wierenga says that someone with an eating disorder approaches food differently, and therefore their concept of food is warped.

She says that while most people look at food as something to enjoy, those with eating disorders approach food as something that needs to be controlled.

“You’re constantly evaluating how what you eat is going to affect your body,” Wierenga said. “That’s something you need to combat and remember that food is something to enjoy.”

She says that it’s a constant mental battle that is ongoing for those with eating disorders.

She says it’s also important to remember the social aspect of eating, especially during the holidays.

She said that often meals are served with family members and friends as a way to connect and communicate with one another, so not running from the table as soon as the meal is done is important for someone who has struggled with food in the past to remember as well.

“You need to remember to stay at the table after the main course,” she said. “Meals are about conversation, they’re not about food.

“Food is a vessel for celebration and for community. You have to remember and allow yourself to enjoy the time, remember that it’s not a threat and that it helps you to build relationships.”

Wierenga says that often those struggling with eating disorders use food as a means of self-abuse. She said the way to combat those thoughts, that can come naturally to some people, is to remember that you’re valuable and that you deserve happiness.

“You need to keep telling yourself that you’re worth eating for,” she said.

When approaching the holidays, Wierenga says the best thing for someone struggling with food to do is to be aware of their own personal triggers. She said you have to go into meals having a game plan and keep your positivity high.

She says one way to stay positive and to not sink into an emotional hole is to think positive thoughts, listen to some positive music and, if you’re spiritual, to pray.

Wierenga’s recently released book Chasing Silhouettes deals with helping a loved on through an eating disorder. It includes several personal stories of her struggle, interviews with members of her family and friends and a guide to help those through the dangerous world of eating disorders. It can be found on

Her new book The Mom in the Mirror: Body Image, Beauty, and Life After Pregnancy will be released on Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 12, 2013). It deals with, among many other things, struggling with body image and eating disorders during and after pregnancy.

Wierenga has four children and currently in Alberta lives with her husband and family.

Here are 12 ideas to help people with eating disorders negotiate the holidays – courtesy of The Centre for Change compiled by Michael E. Berrett, PhD.

• Eat regularly and in some kind of reasonable pattern. Avoid “preparing for the last supper.” Don’t skip meals and starve in attempt to make up for what you recently ate or are about to eat. Keep a regular and moderate pattern.
Worry more about the size of your heart than the size of your hips! It is the holiday season, a great time to reflect, enjoy relationships with loved ones and most importantly a time to feel gratitude for blessings received and a time to give back through loving service to others.
• Discuss your anticipations of the holidays with your therapist, physician, dietitian or other members of your treatment team so that they can help you predict, prepare for and get through any uncomfortable family interactions without self-destructive coping attempts.
• Have a well-thought-out game plan before you go home or invite others into your home. Know “where the exits are,” where your support persons are and how you’ll know when it’s time to make a brief exit and get connected with needed support.
• Talk with loved ones about important issues: decisions, victories, challenges, fears, concerns, dreams, goals, special moments, spirituality, relationships and your feelings about them. Allow important themes to be present and allow yourself to have fun rather than rigidly focusing on food or body concerns.
• Choose, ahead of time, someone to call if you are struggling with addictive behaviours, or with negative thoughts, or difficult emotions. Call them ahead of time and let them know of your concerns, needs and the possibility of them receiving a call from you.
• If it would be a support or help to you, consider choosing one loved one to be your “reality check” with food, to either help plate up food for you or to give you a reality check on the food portions which you dish up for yourself.
• Write down your vision of where you would like your mind and heart to be during this holiday time with loved ones. Take time, several times per day, to find a quiet place to become in tune again with your vision, to remember, to nurture, and to centre yourself into those thoughts, feelings, and actions which are congruent with your vision for yourself.
• If you have personal goals for your time with loved ones during the holidays, focus the goals around what you would like to do. Make your goals about “doing something” rather than about trying to prevent something. If you have food goals, then make sure you also add personal emotional, spiritual, and relationship goals as well.
• Work on being flexible in your thoughts. Learn to be flexible in guidelines for yourself, and in expectations of yourself and others. Strive to be flexible in what you can eat during the holidays. Take a holiday from self imposed criticism, rigidity, and perfectionism.
• Stay active in your support group, or begin activity if you are currently not involved. Many support groups can be helpful. 12-step group, co-dependency group, eating disorder therapy group, neighborhood “Bunco” game group, and religious or spiritually oriented groups are examples of groups which may give real support. Isolation and withdrawal from positive support is not the right answer for getting through trying times.
• Avoid “overstressing” and “overbooking” yourself and avoid the temptation and pattern of becoming “too busy.” A lower sense of stress can decrease a felt need to go to eating disorder behaviors or other unhelpful coping strategies. Cut down on unnecessary events and obligations and leave time for relaxation, contemplation, reflection, spiritual renewal, simple service, and enjoying the small yet most important things in life. This will help you experience and enjoy a sense of gratitude and peace.


2 thoughts on “Holidays tough for those with eating disorders

  1. Agreed – this is so helpful in its practicality. I especially appreciate your acknowledgement that the emotional aspect of the holidays can make things so much more difficult…especially when one is around family/friends and can’t necessarily leave the table right after the meal is over.

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