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How to handle the Fourth of July with an eating disorder

The Fourth of July, like so many holidays in our culture, centers on food, which means it can be hard for people with an eating disorder. Sure, there are fireworks, but before they begin, there are BBQs and cakes and ice cream. Food-based celebrations are usually a challenge for someone in recovery from an eating disorder. While our disorders are not only about food, highly stimulating situations combined with food often trigger eating disorder behaviors.

Stimulation = stress, and stress is a trigger

Many people who have eating disorders are highly sensitive people. This means that situations that may not be stimulating for others can be overly stimulating for them. Stimulation, even if it is positive stimulation caused by being with friends and loved ones, is stressful.

It is very common to respond to stress with eating disorder behaviors. Therefore, highly stimulating situations like the Fourth of July are often eating disorder triggers. Even if they don’t act on their eating disorder behaviors, they may find themselves overwhelmed. They may seek coping mechanisms when taking part in a high-stimulation holiday like the Fourth of July.

If you have a child who has an eating disorder, consider first whether a highly stimulating environment is appropriate at this stage in treatment. When your child is still in the early stages of learning healthy coping mechanisms, you should avoid or at least limit the time spent at highly stimulating events.

If your child is well into recovery, consider how much stimulation is manageable. Also, review with your child in advance which healthy coping mechanisms they find most helpful in highly stimulating situations.

Parties = food, and food is a trigger

Almost every Fourth of July party involves a large spread of food. We tend to celebrate the Fourth of July with chips and dips. We like hot dogs and hamburgers, pasta and potato salads, ice cream, American flag cakes, and berry pies with extra whipped cream. These foods feel nostalgic and wonderful to most people, but for people who have eating disorders, they can be deeply triggering.

This applies to all types of eating disorders. Someone who has Anorexia Nervosa is just at-risk as someone with Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, or EDNOS. The purpose of most eating disorders is to control eating and weight gain. Eating disorders of all types typically involve restriction. This includes Binge Eating Disorder – a restrictive period typically precedes a binge.

As a result, food-based celebrations are inherently stressful for a person in recovery from an eating disorder.

Fear of buffets

Lots of Fourth of July parties are buffets. This is really convenient for the hosts but can be stressful. Most people who have eating disorders are nervous around food buffets. Some common fears include:

  • There will be nothing “safe” to eat
  • I will overeat
  • Other people will judge me by what I put on my plate
  • People will be monitoring how much and what I eat
  • Everyone will be judging/talking about my eating/weight/appearance

If you have a child who has an eating disorder, follow these steps to reduce stress and optimize the experience:

  • Speak with the host in advance to find out what foods will be available
  • Find out how the food will be served – for example, buffet, plated, etc.
  • Talk to your child about how the food at the party will make them feel
  • Ask your child’s treatment team whether there is anything else you should do to plan for the Fourth of July

If your child is in the early stages of recovery, the mere thought of being around that much food may be too much to deal with. A child well into recovery may work with you on a pre-party food plan and have some signals prepared for you during the event in case things get uncomfortable.

Pre-party checklist

If you attend a Fourth of July party with your child in recovery for an eating disorder, consider the following pre-party checklist:

  • Discuss how long is a reasonable amount of time to attend a party, and plan accordingly.
  • Make a food plan to ensure your child gets neither too hungry nor too full and feels secure in terms of nutrition for the day.
  • Talk about the triggers that your child may encounter at the party and discuss how they may feel.
  • Talk about healthy coping mechanisms for the party. These may range from seeking a favorite cousin to taking a 10-minute break in the car.
  • Prepare an “escape plan” so that your child feels confident that they can leave the party.

Remember that healing from an eating disorder takes time and effort, but it is possible. This year’s Fourth of July celebration may not be the same as in previous years. It may be more difficult. But that doesn’t mean that every year from here on out will be restricted. This is one year out of many, and hopefully next year your child will be in a more fully recovered place and you can return to previous traditions again.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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