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December 20, 2018

Holiday Dos and Don’ts for Those in Eating Disorder Recovery

Holiday Dos and Don’ts for Those in Eating Disorder Recovery

We know that holidays are a tricky time of year for those in eating disorder recovery. Stress and anxiety may increase with the constant presence of food and the extended amount of time spent with family. To make the upcoming holiday a bit easier, we’ve constructed an easy-to-follow dos and don’ts list for this holiday season.

Dos and don’ts for those supporting loved ones


  • Be inviting to all. Even if you don’t think any family members are struggling with an eating disorder, structure your holiday as if they are. Oftentimes, those who are struggling choose not to share their eating disorder with extended family so it’s important to stick to the dos and don’ts list to ensure all holiday participants feel safe and welcome.
  • Be transparent. Those in eating disorder recovery may need to stick to a meal plan or may experience increased anxiety when they don’t know what’s going on, so it’s important to be clear about what is happening at holiday gatherings.
    • You could send out the holiday menu beforehand so those attending know what food will be available.
    • We also recommend setting a time for meals and sticking to it.
  • Have options! Holidays are traditionally food-centric, but they don’t have to stay that way. To alleviate stress for those in recovery, have activities unrelated to food. You could play games, have a movie to watch, or set up family-friendly crafts.
  • Practice positive communication. Try speaking about positive qualities that have nothing to do with appearance. If someone is acting or speaking in a way you don’t understand, be curious instead of critical.


  • Diet talk. Avoid relating food and eating to the need to diet. Don’t talk about the need to diet to “make up” for a meal or joke that you will need bigger pants after the holidays.
  • Body talk. Don’t talk about anyone’s body. Period. If you are feeling unsure of what to say, try talking about personality traits, recent achievements, or share what is going on in your life.
  • Count calories. In fact, don’t mention anything about calories. The caloric content of certain foods may be a trigger for those in recovery. Remember, all food has value regardless of how “unhealthy” you may find it to be.
  • Be the food police. Don’t comment on what other people are eating, what’s on their plates, or how much is on their plates.
  • Publicly discuss someone’s eating disorder without their permission. If a loved one has confided in you about their eating disorder, don’t assume that they have told everyone else. If they want to talk about their eating disorder, that’s great! If not, that’s equally as okay! What’s important is that they get to choose whether or not they want to discuss it during a holiday gathering.

Dos and don’ts for those in recovery


  • Reach out for support in advance. You could schedule additional appointments with your treatment team or your therapist. You may also reach out to support friends in advance, letting them know you may be needing extra support during the holiday.
  • Predict times of stress. If certain holiday events will be especially triggering, you don’t have to go. By knowing which activities may be the most challenging, you can pick and choose what to attend.
  • Have a plan. Plan in advance how you could leave a situation if necessary, what to say if you are feeling triggered, or what to do if you are afraid of relapsing.
  • Practice responses to common, problematic comments. If you know that your family will say certain triggering statements, have a plan. You could choose to respond, you could excuse yourself, or you could distract yourself. Whatever response you choose is perfectly okay!
  • Stick to your treatment plan! Like any other day, remembering what you learned in treatment is essential.
  • Plan distractions. If you know you will feel anxious or uncomfortable during specific holiday times, plan a way to distract yourself. This may include fidgets, texting support people, art projects, writing, or reading.
  • Take a break. It is okay if you need to step outside for a moment or retreat to a different room. Oftentimes, those around you won’t notice if you step away for a five-minute breather.
  • Have an exit plan. If you need to leave, that’s okay! It may be helpful to have a support person at the family gathering with you if possible. You could ask them in advance if they would accompany you if you are feeling the need to leave for a bit. You could take a walk together or chat in a different room. If you need to leave the gathering completely because that is what is best for your recovery, that’s a perfectly good reason to excuse yourself.


  • Say yes to everything. You don’t have to attend every holiday event, play every holiday game, or help with meal preparation. Only take on what you can manage during your recovery. It’s important to prioritize your health and happiness during the holiday season.
  • Give in to negative thoughts. Challenge your negative thoughts and be prepared to utilize skills you learned during treatment and recovery. Remember, you are doing the best you can and that is enough.
  • Get ahead of yourself. If you are experiencing eating disorder symptoms during the holiday, it doesn’t mean recovery isn’t possible or that you have failed. It simply means that you’ve hit a bump in the recovery road and that you may need additional support. Reach out to your treatment team, therapist, or support system to let them know that you are struggling so they can help you get back on track.

We know the holidays are hard. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, reach out for support. At The Emily Program, we are able to address each person individually, treating their specific needs. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, we strongly encourage you to reach out and get help. If you are ready, you can call us at 1-888-364-5977 or complete our online form.

Get help. Find hope.