Dinner talk and eating disorders: make your loved ones feel more comfortable this Christmas

Charlie talks eating disorders at Christmas, and how to be mindful of those around you who may be suffering. 

The first thing to point out is that eating disorders – despite the title – are not solely about food. You can never tell if somebody has an eating disorder just by looking at them or by analyzing the food that they eat. I’ve spent several Christmas holidays worrying constantly about where / what I would be expected to eat, and in front of who, but there is always a deeper issue that causes this worry. No two people – even if they both suffer from the same type of eating disorder – experience the illness in the same way, and they will have different underlying traumas. However, since the majority of Christmas tends to revolve around meals, the control that an ED sufferer tries to have over food is taken away, which can be very upsetting as your coping strategy is no longer present. So although eating disorders are not just about food, at this time of year meal times are especially difficult, and thus making the experience at the table easier may soothe someone who is struggling more than you realize.

1) Banish diet talk, or change the topic when another brings it up. Luckily my family is supportive of my previous struggles with food, and dieting has never been a prominent conversation in the household. But not everybody is in the same boat. The prevalence of diet culture in this country means that people constantly discuss their food plan, how they’re stepping into the gym as soon as January hits, or that they’ve done this and that for the past week in order to ‘deserve’ letting go at Christmas. This talk is toxic and damaging for everybody, insinuating that our worth is tied to our eating habits, but it is upsetting for someone with an eating disorder.

2) Do not comment on what they – or anybody else – are eating. It may seem like an obvious point, but it’s an easy thing to forget, particularly if the person in question is in recovery. Comments such as how ‘well you’re eating now’, or how much ‘healthier you look’ are heartfelt and are not meant to cause any harm, but often they cause discomfort. Even if someone is eating well, or eating slightly more than usual, it does not mean that the trauma has gone away or that they feel totally comfortable at the dinner table. Unfortunately eating disorders are complex illnesses, and come in ebbs and flows even after recovery, and so it is difficult for an outsider to judge how the person is feeling.

3) Even if someone is very open about their mental illness, it does not necessarily mean that they will want to discuss it at Christmas. I certainly feel more sensitive and vulnerable around this time of year as lots of memories come back to me, and I usually avoid discussing anything mental health related as it makes me feel upset or guilty. If someone wants to reach out to you, then they will: but in their own time and most likely away from the dinner table.

4) Although we think of Christmas as a happy time to overindulge, be aware that this can be very triggering for some. In particular, bulimia and binge-eating disorder revolve around periods of binging and restricting, and so a table piled full of food can be an awful thing to be faced with – especially when hiding your discomfort in front of others. If you know that binging is a trigger, you could serve up Christmas dinner on each individual’s plate and then offer seconds, rather than leaving all the food sat in front of you. Little things like this can make a big difference.

Ultimately, Christmas is a time for being with family, and does not have to be completely focused on food. If you know that someone you love has an eating disorder, spending time doing other things such as watching Christmas films, playing terrible board games (with inevitable family arguments) or even just allowing some space and privacy could make the experience much calmer. At Christmas parties and meals out this year remember that over 1.6 million people suffer from eating disorders in the UK, and thus it is likely that many people you meet will have struggles you do not know about. A bit of kindness and tact around meal times this month will be more appreciated than you realise.

Charlie Collett

Photo credit: https://www.netmums.com/christmas/your-easy-peasy-guide-to-cooking-christmas-dinner