Navigating the holidays and New Years’ diet culture with an eating disorder
The holiday period brings many things – family, friendship, changes in routine and of course, food.
Alongside the cheer and smiles, there is always an overwhelming reinforcement of diet culture, disordered behaviours, and new year’s resolutions that thrive off insecurity and poor body image.
For those without an eating disorder, this is still difficult. But it is even more difficult for those who have spent all year trying to heal from the very cognitions that are now praised.
Holidays should, and can, foster a beautiful time of connection, sharing and joy. You should be able to head into the new year without the lingering desire to lose weight, and get ‘healthy’, but it can be difficult when we live in a diet culture world that suggests your body is a problem to be fixed.
For somebody in eating disorder recovery, it is necessary to change the narrative surrounding the misconceptions of health and wellness, as well as working to attain a state of mental and physical peace and happiness within yourself.
My name is Tara, and I have personal experience of an eating disorder. I struggled for years and I am now studying to be a dietitian, and to encourage others to build a healthy relationship with food. I believe in the power of conversation and connection, opening dialogue around eating disorders and challenging the misconceptions around body/food that sustains them.
Although easier said than done, here are some suggestions and ways I personally managed to combat the disordered thoughts, and challenge the diet culture mentality that is present through the holidays and New Years’ resolution period.
The road is long, and the race is only with yourself
Comparison truly is the thief of joy. It’s easy to compare yourself to everyone around you – and your eating disorder can thrive off the justification of certain behaviours, due to comments and actions made by others.
It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. Auntie Cathy decides she needs to go on a diet and bans herself from ‘naughty’ foods as a part of her New Years’ Resolution? That affects her and her only. You don’t have to play into the insecurities of others. You don’t have to restrict yourself from things you love because someone else is influenced by diet culture.
Your journey is independent of others. You know you want a life beyond the behaviours that keep you stuck. Looking to others to validate the continuation of behaviours and fuelling of cognitions can keep you trapped in your eating disorder.
Food has no moral value
In a world that deems food ‘good’ or ‘bad’, there is something empowering about chucking these misconceptions out the window and reminding yourself morality is not allowed to be present.
Food is neutral. Food is food. Attaching morality to particular foods/food groups as a ‘New Years Resolution’ can cause guilt and shame when the body inevitably fails to maintain these unrealistic diets. For those with an eating disorder, it can make recovery that much harder.
Remind yourself at every step that health is subjective and what may be perceived by diet culture as ‘unhealthy’, is often the healthiest thing for you. There is nothing healthy about depriving yourself of holiday foods, due to fixation on its perceived healthiness.
The healthiest thing you can do for yourself this holiday period is participation. It’s eating what you truly want – not opting for the ‘healthy’ option because your eating disorder is telling you to.
When friends/family/acquaintances are telling you about their resolutions, which include denoting food as good or bad, remind yourself that good and bad is entirely subjective. Setting yourself goals that will perpetuate your disorder, and keep you focused on your body and food, is the unhealthiest thing you can do.
Food is connection
The festive period is often full of pavlovas, roast meats, barbecues, and amazing sweet desserts. This is so much more than just food – it’s sharing, kindness, fostering relationships and importantly, connection.
There is something special about eating your nana’s homemade brownies with your family and counting down to the new year. Helping your mum decorate the pavlova and eating some together.
These may seem like small, normal tasks to most people – but to those with an eating disorder/ED history, this can incite anxiety, triggering feelings and potentially the desire to engage in disordered, compensatory behaviours.
It is important to remind yourself that by joining in on the New Years celebrations, and family meals, you are creating a shared connection, memories and peace. There is something special and empowering in participating with others.
Instead of setting goals to deprive yourself of these connections and relationships, set yourself the goal to partake, to participate in social eating and conversation over a shared meal. This goal may seem small to some, but represents so much to so many. It provides an avenue for small amounts of joy to be rebuilt.
Head into the New Year and leave behind the behaviours that have taken away everything from you.
You are allowed to rest and set non food/exercise goals
It is a universal experience to move less and eat more over the holiday period. This is not bad in the slightest!
You don’t need to adopt an exercise regime over this period. You don’t need to move your body in a compensatory way in order to justify participating in festive food or activities.
You deserve to rest and take time to relax. You also don’t need to participate in the narrative that New Year’s resolutions have to include dietary changes and/or increased exercise regimes.
New Year’s resolutions should reflect the goals of your true, healthy self. They should encourage the enhancing of your life, the steps you want to take to help your healing journey. This could look like:
- Stop viewing food as a form of currency/morality
- Build a healthy relationship with resting
- Be kinder to myself
- Connect with loved ones
- Open up and share more with those I trust
Remove yourself from conversations that are not helpful
It isn’t rude to excuse yourself from conversations or environments that are not helpful for your recovery. It is totally valid and justifiable to politely remove yourself. If you feel comfortable doing so, it is empowering to reclaim the conversation, and challenge what others are saying. Some suggestions include:
- “I’m working hard to separate my worth from my weight and appearance, and it would really help me if you didn’t comment on what I look like.”
- “I’ve decided to try to appreciate the body I have, so I’m going to start by not bullying it anymore, and would like you to do the same.”
- “I’m happy with my body and I’d prefer if you didn’t comment. I don’t find it helpful”
Diet culture has woven its way into the lives of so many – making it inherently hard to rewire the mindset of others. Thought challenging, and establishing boundaries with others, can provide a really effective avenue to notice how you are doing in your recovery, and make further steps forward.
Where to from here?
Navigating the New Years period with an eating disorder can be incredibly difficult. It may challenge you in ways you had not considered. Despite this, it can be a powerful measure of where you are in your recovery. It may help you identify particular areas you need to work on, and what goals you can set for your future progression in recovery.
Again, the festive and holiday season is about love, kindness, connection. Don’t let your mind take it away from you.
Butterfly is here for you 7 days a week, 8am-midnight (AEDT). For support with eating disorders or body image concerns, call the National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673), chat online or email the team, through email@example.com.
Written by Tara Finn, who is 21, currently studying a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics (Honours), and lives in Sydney, Australia. Tara has lived experience with ARFID and anorexia nervosa, and is firmly in recovery.