Holiday Food and Mental Health

November 23, 2016

One of the best parts of the holidays is the food. Everything from traditional favorites to calorie-laded delicacies line most holiday tables like planes on a runway, just waiting to be devoured by family members. That feast can seem delightful to many, but for those with mental health issues — particularly eating disorders — it can be a daunting display.

As someone who has grappled with eating disorders my entire life, I’m familiar with this feeling. There always seems to be so much pressure to eat like everyone else: excessively without abandon. It’s always a celebration of too much: too much food, too many drinks, too much noise. It can really get to you, and for years it got to me. Any large family dinner would find me alternating between bingeing with the residual guilt all the way to not eating anything unless I checked the calorie count. The emotional rollercoaster would bring me down, and inevitably caused stress and strain on my relationship with my family. Someone would inevitably comment on my relationship with food or body size, and the triggers would start all over again.

I’ve since learned how to handle family and social outings at this time, and I’d like to offer some help for those who might still suffer from issues around holiday food and mental health:

  • First thing is to take care of yourself. For me, that’s attending a recovery meeting, getting some exercise, and staying on my medication protocol. I don’t skip any of these activities for anyone. Starting the day with a good base of mental health is always the best way to handle whatever comes your way. Invite a friend or family member to come with you when you work out. It’s a nice way to start a family outing.
  • Don’t feel pressured to do anything you don’t want to do. Remember your therapist’s advice and/or stay as close to your program as possible. If certain foods are triggering, just avoid them entirely. I’ve learned eating on a smaller plate helps me feel satisfied without playing the calorie game, and once I’m full, I stop. I don’t drink alcohol during these events, and I try to breathe between bites and just enjoy myself.
  • Stay in the moment. If you start to feel anxiety around what you’re eating, remember to breathe and stay present. It’s one day, and everything passes.
  • If you suffer from depression, remember that excessive amounts of carbohydrates, sugar, and processed food can really play with your brain and body chemistry. Small amounts are fine, but you won’t feel better after a ton of heavy food that will just drag your serotonin down with it. There’s a long time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, so pace yourself. A little bit of that special food is fine, but if you have issues with impulse control, just take a break and walk away from it for a while.
  • If you break down and eat too much or deny yourself food, forgive yourself immediately and start again on your program tomorrow. Life will go on, and you will be fine. Drink extra water and remember to get right back on your programs of recovery. The programs work if you work them.

I wish everyone a happy, healthy holiday season. Enjoy!