Food and Fitness Language Gets Extra Triggering Around the Holidays—Here’s How To Cope

Photo: Getty Images/Justin Lambert
Last Thanksgiving, Claire Gold* excused herself from dinner after eating what she recalls as "too much." "I could hear everyone sitting down for dessert, and I remember actively thinking that I could get up and be with them, but I didn't want to give myself the temptation," she says. She felt guilty that she skipped out on time with her family.  "But for me, the holidays have always been a representation of these drastic pendulum swings, where we’re all sitting down and feasting and then I feel like I need to go work out harder than ever to justify that."

Sitting down to a holiday feast is meant to bring joy, but for Gold—and me, and others who struggle with disordered eating—it can be one of the worst few hours of the year. So much so, that the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) keeps its hotline open on Thanksgiving and Christmas because those are two days that are known to be particularly hard for survivors.

Experts In This Article
  • Christy Harrison, RD, MPH, RD, CEDS, an intuitive eating coach, anti-diet dietitian
  • Jill Daino, LCSW-R, Jill Daino, LCSW-R is a New York-Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the co-director at the Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia at the Institute of Contemporary Psychotherapy.

"The holidays can be a particularly triggering time for people who struggle with eating disorders for a whole host of reasons, most predominantly because of both the general focus on food and holiday meals and navigating the sometimes stressful family questions and conversations," says Jill Daino, LCSW-R, a Talkspace therapist who specializes in eating disorders.

"During this particular time of the year, we're expected to eat, enjoy, connect, and take pleasure over food, but these are all things that the overarching context of diet culture has made us feel bad about," adds Christy Harrison, RD, an intuitive eating coach and anti-diet dietician. Diet culture, as Harrison has defined for Well+Good in the past, is a system of beliefs prevalent in American society that equates thinness to health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher health status, moral status, or social status; and arbitrarily labels some foods as "good" and others as "bad."  She says that for many people, the holidays are a "perfect storm of expectations of celebration and 'indulgence' meeting up with the demonization of certain foods and the fear of weight gain."

In the past, at my own Thanksgiving dinners, innocently-intentioned comments like "you go girl!" or "someone's hungry!" as I scooped a second helping of stuffing onto my plate ended with me crying over the toilet throwing up the meal I spent most of the day cooking. "I'm constantly wondering if I'm being judged taking too much food or going back for seconds, overthinking every single thing that goes onto my plate, and those feelings can be super isolating," adds Gold. "When I'm on my own I feel totally fine, but when I'm with my family for the holidays, it all resurfaces in a really terrible way." Cut to an onslaught of restrictive behaviors before the big meal (like not eating the entire day of Thanksgiving to "save up" for dinner), or exercise-based purging in the days that follow.

Compounding these existing triggers is the idea, as Gold alluded to, that the holidays are a time to "work out harder" to "make up for your meal,"—a mindset the fitness industry continues to promote and capitalize on year after year. Trainers spend the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day tout the benefits of "torching that turkey" and "burning off the bird," invoking the societally-ingrained fear of weight gain in order to sell classes and services.

While this language might seem playful and fun at first glance, it can be hugely harmful to people living with or in recovery from disordered eating, says Daino. "There's this message of 'you better enjoy it now because you're going to have to work it off in the New Year,'" adds Harrison. "It creates a sense of dread for people and a push-and-pull between deprivation and 'indulgence.'"

Adriana Piekarewicz, who has dealt with disordered eating for "as long as she can remember" experiences that push-and-pull every time the holiday season rolls around. "My triggers are all around whether I can work out or not, because I feel like I have to earn my food," she says. "And if I can't get in the workout that I feel is necessary then I can't eat what everyone else is eating."

While the circumstances of the 2020 holiday season may mean people are missing out on celebrating over big meals with their families, they come with their own set of issues. "Due to the pandemic and safety concerns this year in particular, many people in recovery from an eating disorder might have the added stress of potentially being alone this holiday season," says Daino, as loneliness can be a big trigger for some folks. (As are the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic itself.)

There's no easy answer as to how to navigate these situations, but there are small things you can do to get through them as healthily as possible if you find yourself triggered by the holidays. "Try to think of the meal as something that's delicious and that's going to take care of you—not as something that you need to save up for ahead of time or compensate for after the fact," says Harrison. That might mean planning ahead and talking to a therapist or dietitian about what the holiday might look like, what you might eat, and what you plan to do if and when you feel triggered, says Daino.

Daino also suggests trying to create new traditions that take the holiday's focus away from food, like watching a favorite movie or dressing up in ugly sweaters. And while you're at it? Throw a big middle finger to any trainer who makes you feel like you need to "earn" your holiday joy. "Torching for the turkey" is a dumb phrase, anyway, and it doesn't deserve a second thought.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.

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