Holidays are a seemingly joyous time full of love, family, and friends, but for someone in recovery from an eating disorder, food puts a lot of stress on this occasion. From Starbucks holiday lattes to gingerbread cookies, to hors d'oeuvres, at holiday parties, we are constantly surrounded by food around the holidays. Many people and magazines hyper-focus on how to not gain weight over the holidays, and there's sure to be conversation about the freshman 15 if you're on break from college.

For those who are in recovery from an eating disorder, the constant exposure to food leads to anxiety and near-constant triggers. I spoke to Bonnie Brennan, the Senior Clinical Director of Adult Residential and Partial Hospital Services at the Eating Recovery Center to get tips on how to protect your recovery while enjoying the holiday season. 

How should you handle comments about weight from friends and family?

Weight questions and comments are tricky to handle. People ask because they care, but they sometimes say the wrong thing and can make things uncomfortable (these are some things to certainly not say). 

Brennan recommends that, "Unless the person is helping you monitor your weight goals and meal portions, I think it is reasonable to say something like, 'Thank you for caring enough to ask. That's something I work on with my team.' If people continue to press, be sure to have a 'neutral, non-food related' topic set up as a distraction."

How do you ignore the constant "body talk" around the holidays?

This is a struggle that goes far beyond the holidays, but it seems that the talk of Christmas treats makes it all the more present. Even if they know that you're in recovery, people still make mistakes. Brennan suggests that those in recovery should "let others know about their stance on eating disorders and have a statement they use to inform others quickly." In addition, remember that your body is not your self worth. When I look at my friends, I don't list their clothing size or weight as one of the things I love about them, so I have to treat myself with that same respect.

How do you deal with urges to use behaviors (such as restricting and exercising) to make up for holiday meals?

Luna Zhang

Restricting and overexercising are certainly tempting actions around the holiday season. So many normal people say they need to "work off the calories" or "save room for later." But, for an individual in recovery from an eating disorder, that rationale doesn't work. 

Brennan recommends to "enjoy your meal according to your meal plan and go over a strategy with your dietician or support person ahead of time. You may also consider using the Recovery Record app to be accountable to your support team and practice some of the custom goals and skills the app can help you and your team set up ahead of time."

How do you resist the urge to binge when the holiday season seemingly normalizes the behavior? 

gingerbread, cookie, chocolate, candy, sweet, ginger, cake
Sarah Comerford

Brennan recognizes that "the holiday season does normalize the behavior," but there are ways to combat the urge to binge. However, if you do binge, Brennan recommends to "start the next day over on your meal plan. It may be helpful to take a look at what may have been the trigger for the binge. Were you overwhelmed? Too many activities? Too much stress? Understanding what leads you to a behavior is important." Remember that your response to the behavior is just as important as the behavior itself, and you can come back from it. 

How should you navigate a more appetizer-based holiday party while sticking to your meal plan? 

chocolate, cream, candy, cake, sweet
Sarah Schoenster

It's hard to go outside of your typical meal structure, but with some practice, it'll get easier. Brennan recommends making it fun "by going to a restaurant and ordering appetizers to share with a support person or friend and experiment with how you make a meal out of the starters."

Any final thoughts?

We have to remember the importance of the holiday beyond the food. Brennan also recommends to "have a solid team in place and support people identified. It can be a lovely time for you to celebrate those who have helped you during your own 'dark' times."

Sydney te Wildt

As someone in recovery, I know how hard the holidays can be. Strategies that have also helped me are reaching out to friends, spending quality one-on-one time with family members, and focusing on my values. No matter what my eating disorder tries to tell me, I care about connection, honesty, and happiness far more than a number on the scale (even during the holidays).