11/21/2012 10:07 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Protecting Eating Disorders Recovery During the Holiday Season, Part I


The holiday season can be a particularly challenging time of year for individuals struggling with eating disorders. The food-centric festivities surrounding most holidays can feel overwhelming to patients, regardless of their stage in the recovery process. In response to the anxiety that can accompany heightened exposure to food and gatherings of friends, family and colleagues, treatment professionals often observe an escalation of eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors and lapses in recovery during this time of year.

From Halloween through New Year's Day, gatherings can tend to feel like a constant focus is placed on food, and the food served isn't often the healthiest of options. For some, being surrounded by comfort foods and sweets can make eating in moderation a difficult task. For others, the overabundance of food and a focus on sitting down together for family meals can cause anxiety.

According to Marla Scanzello, MS, RD, director of dietary services at Eating Recovery Center, the key to navigating holiday eating with confidence lies in planning for challenges that may arise, as well as placing an emphasis on practicing flexibility and asking for support.

"Many patients struggle to accept when things don't go as planned, and they have difficulty realizing that one meal doesn't make or break their eating disorders recovery progress," explains Scanzello.

No matter your stage in the recovery process, practicing these five strategies can help you protect your eating disorders recovery during the holidays and avoid potential triggers for eating disorders relapse.

1. Shift the focus from food, meals and counting calories to celebrating and spending time with loved ones. Spending your time evaluating available food to identify the healthiest options keeps you "in your head" and prevents you from meaningfully engaging with the people that care about you most. Accept that food is a part of seasonal get togethers and reframe your thoughts to emphasize interaction with family and friends over meals themselves and the types of foods served.

2. Avoid "good food"/"bad food" talk. In general, healthy eating is all about moderation, and this notion is particularly true when it comes to traditional holiday fare. Rather than labeling foods as "good" or "bad," try to enjoy healthy portion sizes during each course.

3. Avoid "overbooking" your schedule with holiday functions. Shopping for holiday gifts, attending all the holiday functions and hosting your own parties can make for a stressful holiday season. It's important not to "overbook" yourself during this time and maintain an awareness of your stress level. Trust your instincts and take a break if events and obligations become overwhelming. Don't worry about disappointing friends and family if you're unable to attend this gift exchange or that dinner; they'll understand that protecting your recovery is your No. 1 priority.

4. Surround yourself with people who have healthy relationships with their bodies, food and weight. If possible, bring a trusted family member or friend with you to holiday gatherings, and be sure to keep lines of communication open and honestly discuss your challenges, victories and goals with members of your support network. If you're comfortable doing so, share your thoughts and feelings with trusted individuals; if they understand why the holidays can be a difficult time for you, it will help them provide eating disorders support.

5. Continue working with your outpatient dietitian. Ongoing nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian provides powerful guidance, support and education to help patients overcome their fear of food and normalize eating behaviors, particularly during times of stress. If holiday travel keeps you from keeping your regularly-scheduled appointments, consider speaking with your dietitian by phone for a brief check in or corresponding by email about your experiences and dietary challenges.

For more information about eating disorders treatment or protecting recovery during the holiday season, visit

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.