Food Anxiety and Disordered Eating: Holiday Survival Strategies

“Change happens when you understand what you want to change so deeply that there is no reason to do anything but act in your own best interest.” — Geneen Roth

From festive tunes and decor to gift exchanges and gatherings, the holiday season fills me with child-like glee. All throughout, however, I’m cognizant of the fact that many people have near opposite views due to food angst. As someone who’s endured it and now mentors folks in its grasp, I know too well the depth of disordered eating pain. I wish I could multiply and divvy up my joy and inject it into every person suffering. Since I lack that super power, I’ll instead share some useful strategies with hopes that they might find appropriate eyes.

Even when food is the enemy and everywhere, you’re not as alone as you feel.

8 Ways to Manage Food-Related Anxiety Through the Holidays

1. Know you’re not alone. Little feels as lonely as fighting inner-food demons amidst gleeful bashes, and little fuels those demons like loneliness. One-third of holiday stress derives from overindulgence, according to Mental Health America. Add to that the fear of being judged or watched and  general food-related discomfort and it’s safe to say that you’re far from solitary. Considering how hidden many of these issues are, it’s likely that someone nearby struggles similarly. While you’d never wish your challenges on others, viewing yourself as one of many courageous folks who “get” it can help.

2. Confide in a personal cheerleader. Many of us have at least one person in our court who we can openly confide in during tough times. Share your concerns with that person before stressful events. If you fear mid-feast panic, have a code word or signal ready, along with a plan of action. When you ask your cheerleader a particular question, for example, he or she could ask you to step away to help you with something. If the person is a distance away, keep your phone at the ready for an SOS text or call.

3. Plan ahead food-wise. Keep “safe foods,” foods you’re comfortable with, well-stocked in your kitchen and workplace. Bring dishes you can eat with ease to holiday events, with plenty to share. Avoid arriving to parties and feasts on an empty, rumbling stomach. Eating a balanced snack beforehand can help reduce anxiety physically and emotionally. Balanced snacks, containing complex carbohydrates and protein, help your brain produce and utilize calming brain chemicals and staves off overeating. Have whole grain cereal with low-fat milk, for example, or yogurt topped with fruit. (Neither will make you “fat.”)

4. Get creativeI’m not talking about creative ways of food avoidance or pound shedding, which can fuel anxiety. Invest that energy into something therapeutic. Creativity helps take our minds off of stress, allows us to work through challenging emotions and provides emotional fulfillment. Sing. Write. Bake (if you’re comfortable doing so). Draw. Paint. Dance. I’ve personally found free writing, writing quickly and without judgment, near miraculous. For a useful free-writing exercise, check out Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages.

5. If you’re concerned about overeating or riddled with guilt for doing so, try to cut yourself some slack. Everyone feasts on occasion. One calorie-laden meal or day, or even several, won’t break your wellness or trigger “fatness.” Starving ourselves to make up for overeating by depriving the body of nourishment and making way for the bingeing/starving roller coaster, however, can. Even if you don’t attempt to compensate, guilt and self-loathing aren’t helpful to anyone. If you end up bingeing, forgive yourself and move on by eating, rather than skipping, your next meal.

6. Try not to view foods as “good” or “bad.” Demonizing certain foods makes them more tempting, increases stress and perpetuates negative attitudes and behaviors. All foods provide nutrients. Our bodies need carbohydrates, protein and fat to function and thrive. Many holiday foods, such as turkey, whole grain bread, potatoes, pumpkin and cranberries, are chock-full of vitamins and minerals. Emphasize healthy fare and, if you’re able and interested, allow yourself treats. Eating a modest-sized, rich dessert when you’re desiring it keeps it from turning into a craving, which can facilitate bingeing. Once you’re finished, engage in something non-food related, pronto.

7. Give yourself permission to opt out. If a particular event is too much to manage emotionally, decline. Tell the organizer you’re not feeling well and make tentative plans to catch up with friends and family another time on more comfortable grounds. People who care about you wouldn’t want you to attend a function that feels debilitating. (Would you force a friend who’s deathly afraid of flying onto an airplane?) Opting out when it “in” seems impossible isn’t selfish, but self-nurturing.

8. Focus on others. When the food monster overtakes your brain, it can feel all-consuming. While it’s understandable and not your fault, it’s a highly selfish state. What can you do to brighten another’s day? Seek the good in people and offer compliments. Ask questions about people’s lives with genuine curiosity. Hug loved ones. Send greeting cards. Volunteer. A bit of warmth will help others who may be equally anxious, and give you far more in return.

For more information on eating to quell food-related angst, check out my recent articles:

Love the Skin You’re In: Putting Order Back in Disordered Eating LIVESTRONG.com
Nourish Your Body, Nurture YourSELF: Bolstering Your Self-Esteem with a Healthy Diet LIVESTRONG.com
Food Cravings: Demystifying Intense Desires for Certain Foods LIVESTRONG.com
Foods That Increase Serotonin and Induce Sleep The Nest Magazine
The FulFillment Diet: Pursuing Passion FIRST Bartlett’s Integrated Health Journal

I’d love to hear from you. Have you or a loved one grappled with food stress over the holidays? Any pointers to add? Questions to share? If you’d prefer to share thoughts privately, feel free to write me directly. I’ll also be having a quiet Thanksgiving, so if you’re struggling and feel like chatting, find me on Facebook or Twitter.

Leave a comment

25 Comments

  1. Marc Schuster

     /  November 21, 2012

    Number 7 is so important! I always have to remind myself that I can’t be everywhere at once (despite what I’d like to believe) and that people will understand if I can’t make it to certain events. The good news, of course, is that we can always catch up with friends and relatives some other — less hectic — time!

    Reply
  2. It doesn’t take much Thanksgiving fare to push one over the calorie limits, does it? Great advice for everyone really, whether they struggle with food issues or not. Have a great Thanksgiving!

    Reply
  3. Happy Thanksgiving, August!

    That banner at the bottom is ridiculously awesome. Excellent tips, here. My husband asked me not to do a lot of baking this year ~ something I love to do only around the holidays ~ so I was thinking I’d bake for all my friends, but then realized they might not want a ton of cookies and breads dropped off at their house. Hmmm, perplexing. So then I remembered a post I read where someone said they bake for the local fire station, police station, etc.

    Win! I can get my baking fix and do some good without adding calories to my diet (or my husband’s).

    Reply
  4. It took quadruple bypass surgery to change my eating habits. Trust me, nothing is worth that. I recall being somewhere a while back with about a dozen other people, and with the exception of maybe two, all were morbidly overweight. I felt badly for them and wanted to shout out, “Don’t do this to yourselves!” But, of course, I couldn’t. So if you don’t mind, I’ll do this little bit of shouting here.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    Reply
  5. Have a great Thanksgiving, August!

    So much of what you advise also applies to what I learned in “the rooms” during my five years in recovery from alcoholism. We never get to say we’re “recovered.” I’m simply blessed that the demon no longer chases me and I can enjoy parties with club soda and lime.

    When it comes to alcohol, I can’t indulge and recover — but, I learned to eat healthy and embrace my body during my recovery process, so I relate to not letting one bad day write the plot for the next day when it comes to eating.

    Early on, I was taught an acronym for identifying when people are most likely to indulge in their self-medication of choice (food, alcohol, sex…name an addiction). It’s H.A.L.T. Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? If yes, halt and fix the core problem. The urge will likely dissipate.

    Reply
    • Beautifully said, Gloria. I’m thrilled that you’re free of the demon’s grasp! And HALT is one of my favorite acronyms.

      Stay happy and well, and enjoy your Thanksgiving like CRAZY! :)

      Reply
  6. A lot of gyms are open on Turkey Day morning. If you can, fit in an early workout. You’ll feel better about yourself and you shouldn’t feel bad if you have a few more scoops of stuffing or go back for a second piece of apple pie. Also, for you runners, there are a decent amount of Thanksgiving morn races (at least in New England where I live). The entry fee and donations almost always go to a good cause (local soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc.). The race allows another way to get in an early sweat and do something positive for those less fortunate.

    Reply
  7. Number 6 is HUGE! I wrote a post about this last week too. I’m so tired to seeing the words ‘guilty pleasure’, ‘sinful’ and ‘decadent’ used to describe food. It only makes us feel terrible after we’ve indulged and enjoyed something that wasn’t necessarily the healthiest of choices, but IS part of holiday celebrations!
    Thanks for tackling this topic August!

    Reply
  8. This is a really great blog post. – Thank God I don’t suffer from eating disorder! I do however appreciate your blog posts as welcomed recommendations in many ways! Thank you very much for sharing. I really nearly always learn something new and useful from them! You’re a great teacher, August, not only a great writer!!

    Reply
  9. Excellent post, August. The next six weeks will be tough for a lot of people, me included. I’m paying attention to your advice.

    Reply
  10. All very practicable things for everyone, not just people with food problems. No one should really overindulge, but we all do it so we can all heed the advice above.

    Fabulous words of wisdom from someone who apparently knows.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    Reply
  11. I forwarded this post to two friends and one has already written back to say it is printed and displayed on her kitchen bulletin board. Thanks for the reminders. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, August.

    Reply
  12. Thanks again, August! I’m someone else who often feels compelled to use option 7. There are people out there who take offense if you suggest or prefer a healthier choices. When we know what to expect from them the best option is to opt out.
    Again, overall another great post! :-)

    Reply
  13. I love the list, August. the one thing I do to keep me safe around food on the holidays is I make an arrangement with someone else to be there for me and I’m there for them – for the 24 hours or whatever is needed. then if urges hit, I have someone to talk it out with.

    Reply
  14. S. Thomas Summers

     /  November 22, 2012

    My wife has always wanted to open a restaurant. She would name it “Shut Up and Eat It.”

    All the best,

    S. Thomas Summers
    Pushcart Nominated Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

    Reply
  15. This is such a valuable list. I still struggle at holidays even though I “recovered” from my anorexia years ago now. #3 is huge for me. I always offer to bring something because then I know there’s something healthy I won’t start to feel guilty about eating. When I can’t do that, I pack myself something healthy. Today I’m at my mother-in-law’s and I have a pomegranate with me. They’re one of my favorite foods, and they’re great for when everyone is gorging on their second helping of pie because it takes me a long time to eat one.

    Reply
  16. I love #4. When I’m struggling, I get physical–go outside and work in the garden, or listen (really listen) to music, or draw or write, and it helps. Also, the one about having a friend to send an SOS to is huge–#2 I think that was. This one is so important when you’ve got one of those MILs who always does a double-take when you politely decline dessert, alcohol, breads . . . or whatever else you don’t wish to consume. And finally, #8–lending a hand to someone else works so well in these situations. Indeed, we can be a cheerleader to a friend in need and that gives us strength.

    Reply
  17. Great advice, August! Thanks for the reassurance. I don’t suffer from disordered eating behavior, thank goodness, although I really feel for those who do. There can be lots of guilt, though, and second-guessing.

    Reply
  18. I eat until I am full, but ate a lot of rich foods, so I went out for a walk/run today! I have a complete cleanse tomorrow. Colonoscopy on Tuesday! Hahaha! Good timing? Not sure about that, but I’ll be glad to get it over with…

    Reply
  19. Sounds silly, but my best way to avoid overeating is to go to the pickings area get a few things, grab a drink and position myself outside of that space. Last year I made the mistake of sitting at the pickings table and all I did was eat. :)

    Reply
  20. Hi! Just popped over from Susie’s little ‘soiree’.

    Some great advise here for the holidays… I have to share this with my friend, Jenny. She is a ‘sufferer’, poor girl and we’ve had some setbacks… this, I think, is going to be a great help!
    :)

    Reply
  21. Good golly! I demonize my food. Draw Pentagrams around it. Hold Oatmeal pie seances. I sacrifice it to the Gods in my tummy. It is truly ridiculous. But, I think recognition goes a long way. :-) And these are VERY helpful tips. Only one month, and the temptations get locked up til Valentine’s Day. HA. **stopping by from Susies**

    Reply
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