Given that so much of the holiday revolves around food and eating (often in a group), from advent calendars to the big day itself, it can be an incredibly tough time for those with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, ARFID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder) or any other form of disordered eating.
If this is sounding familiar to you, the first thing to remember is that you're not alone – in fact, it's thought that at least 1.25 million people in the UK are struggling with an eating disorder at any given time. They affect people of all ages and of any race, gender or body type.
However, there is so much support out there, all you need to do is ask for it (one organisation, Beat, is signposted to at the end of this article). Eating disorders are treatable, people can and do make full and sustained recoveries.
"People often feel pressured to eat large amounts during this time of year, which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame for those who restrict food or experience binge eating," notes Caroline Price, Beat's Head of Services. "The upheaval of everyday routines, increased socialisation and lack of time alone can also be challenging for those currently unwell."
She adds that Beat recommend reaching out to a trusted family member about any concerns you have ahead of the festive period, so that you can plan as much as possible. "For instance, you may want to decide on a subtle signal that you are struggling at the dinner table, have music on as a distraction during mealtimes, or organise non-food related activities such as games or films."
Here, three women share their personal experiences of Christmas with an eating disorder – along with what helped them to get through the festive period:
Hope from London
"I developed anorexia at 12 years old and have been living in recovery since coming out of an inpatient treatment at the age of 18, thirteen years ago. Christmas is a tough time of year for so many, with the pressure to have a perfect day. Add into that the fear of food and it creates turmoil for the whole surrounding period. There's no denying that it can be hard, but I also knows it can be OK.
There's this massive focus on food where people seem to spend four or five days eating as much as they can, over-indulging themselves, and then weeks of purging through diet culture, exercise with these added feelings of shame and guilt over all their behaviours.
But for people with eating disorders, there's added stress, fear and anxiety around the festive time. Add into this that the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the mental health of our nation too, and has hit eating disorder sufferers particularly hard.
Although it's tough - and worrying - there are still things that we can do to make sure that Christmas is a time that works for people affected by eating disorders.
If you have an eating disorder, I'd recommend:
Being bold and owning Christmas Day – plan the day yourself, to help you retain a sense of control during a time that can feel tough to navigate
Distracting yourself with activities away from mealtimes, such as board games, going on a walk and listening to a podcast, painting, anything that you personally get joy from
Remembering it is just one day and the feelings will pass, hang on in there
Remembering that an eating disorder isn’t really about the food, so ask yourself what is going on instead and if you need mental health support, don't be afraid to get it
Sarah from Newtown, Wales
"Christmas was a very distressing time for me; I felt so anxious about all the chocolate I was going to get given, and I felt pressured into having to sit down and eat in front of people.
My eating disorder started in 2009 when I was 16 – I wanted to be in control of everything I was eating. I started by cutting certain foods out of my diet and skipping meals, hiding food in my room so my mum wouldn't realise what I was doing.
I knew what was coming and in the days leading up to Christmas I was barely eating anything, I would also spend two hours a day walking in the woods nearby. Then, when it came to Christmas day I ate all of the chocolate that I'd been given so that I wouldn't have it any more – I just wanted it gone.
By this point my family knew about my eating disorder. I refused to sit at the table and eat Christmas dinner, which made things awkward.
In January 2010, I was referred to Child Adult and Mental Health Services for treatment and now I find Christmas a lot easier to deal with. Over the years I've found some little techniques to get through it, such as spending the day with my partner's family and taking my two cats with me. If things get too much then I go and spend some time with them and calm down.
I have made some progress too – I'm making the Christmas cake this year and helping with the food shopping. Nowadays I will sit and join in with Christmas dinner, but it's okay if I can’t manage the same as everyone else at this stage in my recovery, it is important to just pace myself and do what I can do.
I try not to put too much pressure on myself. I've learned it's okay if everyone else is having one thing and I can only manage another – it's important to just pace yourself and do what you can do. There is a big emphasis on food at Christmas but really, it's just another day of the year."
Phoebe from Ipswich, Suffolk
"I began suffering from an eating disorder when I was a teenager as a response to my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression – it was a coping mechanism that became its own problem. Christmas was a particularly difficult time because I would be surrounded by food constantly.
I remember crying over food and shouting at my parents, both for cooking dinner for me, and for not forcing me to eat it. It caused a lot of frustration – my family tried to be supportive but it did make for some arguments and put a strain on our relationship.
We all found it very difficult – I was like a ticking time bomb and the smallest thing could set me off.
Over the years, I was hospitalised a number of times because of my eating disorder. There was one time I remember well because it was a month before Christmas – I wanted to join in with everyone so badly but still really struggled. On the day itself I tried so hard but was still overwhelmed; I felt pressured to recover in time for the celebrations, but I wasn't ready.
Now, I'm years into my recovery and I don't feel anxious about Christmas at all; in fact, I'm really looking forward to it. If I had any advice for people struggling who want to challenge their illness over Christmas, I'd say don't set any expectations for yourself. Even the smallest achievements are achievements, and are worth being proud of."
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk
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