Health Matters

Eating Disorders and the Holidays: Helping Loved Ones Cope

Nov. 22, 2016

Holidays—and their constant focus on food—can be especially challenging for the millions of Americans who struggle with eating disorders or negative body issues. Eating disorder specialist Mary Tantillo offers tips to help people cope and enjoy this festive season.young girl standing outside in winter

For many, food is one of the highlights of the holiday season. But for the 30 million Americans who have suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their lives, it may trigger anxiety, emotional strain, and an increase in symptoms.

If someone you care about has suffered from an eating disorder or struggles with negative body image, here are some DOs and DON’Ts that may help them through the season’s challenges.

  • DO create new traditions that are about more than just food. Go caroling, make holiday crafts, see a movie, or try a new game. Connect in ways that do not trigger or involve the eating disorder. Find an activity your loved one will enjoy that doesn’t center on dining out or baking.
  • DON’T wing it. Plan ahead for how to support your loved one during a holiday party. Sit next to them during meals, engage in distracting activities after meals, and identify a phrase or non-verbal cue your loved one can use to let you know he or she needs additional support.
  • DO talk in private if you’re concerned. If you’re worried about how much your loved one is eating or not eating during the holidays, don’t mention it at the dinner table or in public. Wait until you’re alone in a safe, neutral, comforting place, and express your concerns in a caring and forthright manner, clearly stating your observations and love for them. Remember to separate your loved one from the illness and the fear and anxiety it causes.
  • DON’T engage in negative self-talk about your body. Don’t talk about eating too much, feeling fat, gaining weight, or going on a diet after the holidays. Those comments can be a trigger for those with a history of an eating disorder.
  • DON’T focus on looks. Avoid giving compliments or making comments about your loved one’s weight and physical appearance. Even if your message is well intended, it might be interpreted the wrong way. Instead, focus on compliments that don’t have anything to do with looks, such as, “I love your sense of humor” or “I enjoy being with you.”
  • DO take time to reconnect. Establishing strong connections and repairing relationships with family and close friends is central to promoting ongoing recovery. Help your loved one notice their strengths and remind them that you are there to listen.

If your loved one exhibits the signs of an eating disorder during the holidays by skipping meals, making excuses for not eating, focusing obsessively on healthy eating, or adopting an overly restrictive diet or exercise plan, consider whether it’s an eating disorder and talk to him or her in a quiet place.

Express your concerns using “I” statements, such as, “I noticed you didn’t eat much at dinner and I’m worried.” The person may deny that there is a problem, so it’s important to keep the door open for future conversations.

Gently but firmly encourage them to seek professional help and offer to attend the evaluation appointment with them. If it’s your child, talk to your pediatrician or an eating disorder specialist. Early intervention is critical for reducing the chance of chronic illness.


Mary Tantillo


Mary Tantillo, PhD, PMHCNS-BC, FAED, is director of the Western New York Comprehensive Care Center for Eating Disorders, professor of clinical nursing at the University of Rochester School of Nursing, and founder and permanent board member of The Healing Connection.

She is currently recruiting individuals with anorexia nervosa or a related eating disorder for a study on multifamily group therapy (MFTG) called “Reconnecting for Recovery.” (Learn more here.) Eating disorders disconnect individuals from their own genuine thoughts, feelings, and needs, as well as from others who want to help them. Reconnecting for Recovery MFTG helps patients and families practice the emotional and relational skills that foster reconnections with oneself and others.