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How to support someone with an eating disorder this Christmas?

Hope Virgo, Author and Mental Health Campaigner

Christmas with an eating disorder can feel really challenging and I know if you are supporting someone as well it can be tough. And at times feel slightly frustrating. Christmas for me has a bit of a strange relationship. Since developing anorexia at the age of thirteen, I began to find Christmas difficult. I often felt afraid of what the day would invoice, from the portions, to the chat around food, to the socialising with family and friends that I may have not seen for a while.

COVID19 has added another layer of complication to things this year, and after a challenging year for so many and with Christmas planning being so last minute it has been hard. I know for me, after 12 years in recovery this year does feel slightly harder than others in places. I have spoken to a number of other people who have eating disorders and a few of their concerns more specific to COVID19 range from, not having seen family members or friends for a long term and so comments on weight might happen, to being out of practice eating in front of others to perhaps this intense increasing pressure for this year to just be “perfect” after such a hard year. Whatever someone is feeling with an eating disorder is totally valid, and it is so important that they feel heard during this time.

So what can you do to help support those people with an eating disorder this Christmas. These won’t work for everyone so remember that with all of this communication is key! Ask the individual what Christmas for them might look like if it is done in a way that works for them. But have a think about this list and how you can implement some of it in such a way that it might help alleviate just a bit of that pressure.

Be patient

They may need to step outside on Christmas Day, they may need to be in the kitchen watching the food prep constantly, they may just need some time to stop and think. But whatever it is be patient. A few years ago at Christmas I got really upset on the day as it all got a bit too much for me. In these situations, remaining patient is key. Eating disorders are not a choice and it is important to remember that over the Christmas Season.

Remind them that you know this is hard for them but that you are there for them

A few simple words of reassurance can make the world of difference. Particularly for those with eating disorders who may be fearful that you think everything is okay for them by eating.

Stick to the plan

For some people having a plan will be really important, whether this is a plan for the food, timings for self-care, or just feeling in control of the day. My suggestion is when designing the plan with the individual make sure it works for them – if they need it to be flexible allow that space, if they need a rigid structure, find a way to make that work. Plans changing last minute for people with eating disorders can be really really tough. If plans do need to change make sure you give enough notice to that person who you are caring for with a clear explanation as to why plans have changed.

Distract them!

This is key especially in the run up to and after meals. Helping them to feel relaxed whether with a board game, a walk or a movie! Be aware of their behaviours (this doesn’t mean constantly watching them), but be aware if they are looking distressed and distracted at meal times bring them back into the conversation, ask them things and help keep their mind on what is going on.

Be mindful of what you say

From commenting on individual weights to saying you have “earned the meal” or are “not eating for the rest of the holiday” can all be really difficult comments for those with an eating disorder. Have conversations with members of your family if you know they will comment on food, portions, weights or dieting!

Christmas can be really stressful for those with mental illnesses but it doesn’t have to be, and with the right support in place it can really help during the whole season!


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