Managing Disordered Eating Patterns During the Holidays

American culture is heavily centered around food—including messaging and judgments about how much food we consume, how much weight we’ve gained, and what diets we’re going to use to lose that weight. All of this messaging increases food, body, and weight preoccupation in the public. As a result, clinicians are seeing an increase in food restriction, body comparison to others, and binge eating episodes in clients. 

As the holiday season approaches, we can expect to see those behaviors and emotions increase even more. The holidays can be an especially difficult time for clients who’ve struggled with disordered eating patterns in the past. As clinicians, we must be prepared to help our clients address those concerns, and there are a few key ways we can do that. 

Address Your Own Anxieties and Biases Around Food

We aim to help our clients navigate difficult situations from a place of care. However, we can’t ignore the impact that our lived experiences can have on the type of care we provide. Before providing help with disordered eating patterns, clinicians should first examine if they have their own biases, judgments, or anxieties about food and body image. Any such anxieties could unintentionally affect the way they provide care. 

When clinicians are aware of their potential biases, it decreases the likelihood of imposing diet rules and body image ideals that might intensify the client’s preoccupation with food and their bodies. Instead, clinicians can then focus on helping their clients to feel empowered, independent, and capable. 

Consider Cultural Differences in Your Clients’ Lives 

For many, holiday traditions are something to look forward to every year. But for others, cultural practices and traditions can be triggers. There’s a strong emphasis on food and controlled eating around the holidays that can make clients hesitant to engage with their traditions.

They might feel like taking part in their cultural and traditional practices, especially those that center around food, is problematic. Clients often hear that they can’t eat the cultural food they enjoy or partake in these foods because they’re not “clean” or “good.” 

Clinicians have to be mindful of the diet culture origins and privilege of such messaging. One way to do so is to try to understand the importance of culture and tradition in their clients’ lives. It can also be helpful to collaborate with clients to find ways they can effectively engage in cultural practices and traditions around food, so they feel empowered and confident—not resentful and guilty. 

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Challenge Moralistic Judgments

Behaviors and thoughts around food and weight are loaded with moralistic and character judgments about who a person is. Diet culture promotes the message that if you eat “good” food, then you are a “good” person. And if you eat “bad” food, you’re a “bad” person. These dichotomized conclusions lead people to place moralistic judgments on themselves based on the food that they eat or the type of exercise they do. 

These types of conclusions also reinforce disordered eating patterns and body image issues. Clinicians can help to challenge these core beliefs and rules with clients by encouraging them to stop labeling food as “good” or “bad.” Instead, broaden the conversation around food by asking questions about the impact of food on other areas in their life—like sleep, energy, or mood—rather than on what that means about their character. 

Make a Plan for Triggers Together 

The holidays can bring up triggers and memories that’ll exacerbate negative emotions and behaviors for clients. One effective exercise clinicians and clients can do together is to create a list of possible triggers that are likely to impact the client’s thoughts and feelings around food and the body. 

Then, clinicians and clients should create another list of coping skills to address each trigger. That list can include things like breathing exercises, meditating, journaling, and self-care activities. Each one should be targeted to a specific level of the triggers. 

When clinicians invite their clients to collaborate on their plan, it can help clients feel more in control. Knowing what to do if a trigger comes up makes them feel more prepared and confident that they can respond in ways they can be proud of.

Before providing help with disordered eating patterns, clinicians should first examine if they have their own biases, judgments, or anxieties about food and body image.

Promote Independence

It’s important to give independence and control back to clients who struggle with disordered eating patterns. A large part of the shame, guilt, anxiety, fear, and low self-confidence associated with food and body preoccupation is rooted in irrational, yet reinforced, thoughts and beliefs that the client doesn’t know how to maintain self-control around food. In their work together, clinicians can help clients achieve small wins that build on each other. 

Clients who are able to see themselves win and gain mastery are likely to have increased confidence over time. They may even be more likely to trust themselves and their bodies. Principles from Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size could be helpful to implement in the work during this time. 

While not an exhaustive list of ways clinicians can help clients during the holiday season, these are some important areas to consider. Your emphasis shouldn’t be just on what the client can do by themselves, but on what the two of you can do together—which is what a collaborative working relationship is all about. 

And don’t forget to enjoy the holidays. You deserve a much-needed break!

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