Content warning: This column includes several mentions of eating disorders.
With Thanksgiving behind us, the holiday season is officially in full swing. Many of us are looking forward to reuniting with family and loved ones, giving and receiving gifts and sharing homemade meals. That last experience, however, can be quite sensitive for some in the Brown community and beyond. In particular, those who are struggling with or recovering from eating disorders may find large family meals – which are common during the holiday season – rather daunting due to pressure to over or undereat, as well as the fear of relapse. This holiday season, it is important that we recognize and accept a shift in our eating habits and support those who are struggling with their relationships towards food.
The holidays can be a particularly difficult season for those dealing with eating disorders characterized by restriction, such as Anorexia Nervosa and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). Holiday feasts could make it harder to recover from these disorders, as those in recovery might struggle to confront large quantities of food at once. This situation can be overwhelming and may even trigger a relapse without the proper support and planning. Further, the holiday season can be challenging for those dealing with eating disorders characterized by binging, such as Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder. Large holiday dinners can provide a socially acceptable occasion to enable binge eating, also possibly contributing to relapse.
Additionally, for those struggling with food-related illnesses such as Type II Diabetes, the holidays can provide unusual stressors. Sticking to a low sugar or sugar-free diet can be tricky when eating traditional (and often unhealthy) holiday dishes among loved ones. Holiday weight gain is common, which can have a unique impact on diabetics who may be more likely to gain weight due to their taking insulin. It is critical that those attempting to manage their health under a medically-approved regimen make a plan ahead of time to dodge avoidable setbacks. Loved ones can help keep them accountable and supported so that all involved can have a comfortable holiday dining experience.
For all of us, with or without eating disorders, the holidays can be a confusing or stressful time for our eating habits. Normalizing binging or humorizing unbuckling your pants promotes unhealthy eating practices under the guise of holiday spirit. However, these binge sessions can also lead to an unhealthy obsession over “earning a meal,” or attempting to work off any potential weight gain through exercise. It is important to remember that we all require and deserve nourishment. While we shouldn’t overeat, we also needn’t justify our holiday feast intake with excessive exercise. Eating a full and satisfying meal should not come with feelings of shame, regret or disappointment.
There are several ways in which we can support ourselves and each other through difficulties in eating during the holiday season. For those actively in recovery from eating disorders, scheduling time with a therapist or mental health professional to work through holiday eating stressors can help ease anxieties and aid in recovery. Communicating issues and concerns with loved ones will also help the holidays run smoother. Above all, being kind to ourselves and one another will help make difficult situations around the holidays easier. It’s important to recognize that everyone has their own eating needs, and we should work to support ourselves and our loved ones in meeting them.
As we head deeper into a holiday eating season that may be more difficult for some than for others, it is incumbent on us as a community to support each other through the potential tribulations of large meals, ubiquitous sweets and unspoken personal struggles. With that approach, we can work through the difficulties of the holidays to focus on the joy and community that they bring to so many of us. Everyone deserves to enjoy a holiday meal — free of guilt, shame or pressure. Being aware of triggers and stressors, planning ahead and supporting loved ones can help make that ideal a reality.
Yasmeen Gaber ’23 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.