The holiday season brings with it many joys, but it can also be a very difficult time for those struggling with an eating disorder (ED) or disordered eating.
Social gatherings and family get-togethers are a great opportunity to catch up with people you might not have seen in a while, or to spend extra time with those you love. Unfortunately, the conversation can sometime head down a very unwelcome path. The three topics that are said to be off-limits at the dinner table are sex, politics, and religion. For someone with an ED or disordered eating, those three topics are much more preferable to food, exercise, or weight.
I kindly ask people to be aware of how their words, even those with the best of intentions, can impact on others who are trying to develop a healthier relationship with food, exercise and their body. I’m aware that many people who make these comments are also struggling with some level of poor body image or disordered eating themselves – remember that by engaging in body judgement and using unhelpful language about food and exercise, it further reinforces those negative thoughts for yourself.
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Here are a few suggestions of language to avoid, how you can help, and how to cope if you are struggling.
WHAT TO AVOID
- Don’t discuss your diet. Whether you’re going sugar free, gluten free, dairy free, paleo, vegan, 100 days without chocolate etc. is your decision, but broadcasting it to everyone has the potential to be extremely triggering for those with EDs. Even small comments about what you have or haven’t eaten today can be triggering. If you know someone is interested and wants to talk to you about your diet, then that’s a different story but be aware of who you are speaking to and how much they do/don’t want to know.
- Don’t talk about calories. Avoid mentioning how many you’ve eaten, how many you think you’ve eaten, how many you should have eaten, how much exercise you need to do to burn it off etc.
- Don’t comment on anyone’s weight. Ever. Whether someone has lost, gained, or maintained their weight is completely irrelevant to who that person is. See this post for more.
- Avoid diet talk. This includes phrases like ‘I really shouldn’t eat X…’ or ‘I’ve eaten so much I won’t need to eat for the next month…’ or ‘I’ll need to go for a big run after this…’ or ‘this will make me fat…’ This sort of language is incredibly unhelpful and only helps to fuel a dieting or eating disorder mentality. Food is something that provides our body with fuel and nourishment, as well as a source of pleasure. There’s no need to justify eating. It’s not something we need to feel guilty about, even if you have over-eaten.
- Don’t comment on how much someone is or isn’t eating. Beyond the fact that this is a huge trigger and may embarrass, upset or hurt the individual, how much someone eats really isn’t your business. Note: this might not apply to you if you’re a support person/carer for an ED sufferer and you are helping them eat an appropriate amount of food at meal times.
WHAT CAN HELP
- If you know someone is struggling with an ED or disordered eating, take a moment (away from others) to simply ask ‘how are you?’ They may or may not want to talk about how they are doing, don’t push it. It seems many people are scared to ask this question when it comes to mental health issues, but it’s so important to know that people care.
- If they are happy to talk, you can offer to be a support person. The person will let you know what they need; it differs for each individual. It might be something simple like checking in with how they are doing around meal time, or offering to sit with them before or after the meal to help ease anxieties.
- Be the ‘safe’ person. By this I mean be someone who doesn’t discuss food, exercise or bodies in an unhelpful way. This can be a huge help because it gives the individual someone to talk to who they know won’t leave them feeling triggered or upset.
- See the person behind the ED. When someone lives with an ED it can feel all consuming and is easy to forget that their is life outside of the disorder. You might like to engage this person in general conversation, eg their favourite band or TV show, pets, places they’d love to visit one day.
HOW TO COPE IF YOU ARE STRUGGLING WITH AN ED
- If you’re feeling triggered or upset by other people’s behaviours or comments, take a moment to yourself or chat with your support person (text, call, face-to-face). Remind yourself that their comments are a reflection of their attitude and not a reflection on you.
- If you’re working through recovery and changing your behaviours remind yourself that you are working towards a healthier and happier you – you are doing what is right for yourself. This may mean eating more or less than what others are, or different types of food, and that’s ok. Trust your dietitian and your treatment team, they are much more qualified to give you dietary advice than your great-aunt Esmerelda.
- If you’re feeling confident, you may choose to make an assertive reply and let the person know that their comments are unhelpful. If not, distance yourself from the situation by changing topics or finding a ‘safe’ person to speak with.
- Wear clothing that you feel comfortable in. For some people, this is just clothing that fits well and is physically comfortable. For other people, this might also mean clothing that you absolutely love the look of and let’s you express your sense of fashion.
*Note: These are simply suggestions and may not be appropriate for everyone, they do not replace professional advice. If you are suffering from an eating disorder or disordered eating I encourage you to see a medical professional (eg your GP, psychologist, ED-specialist dietitian) who can provide individual advice and support.