How to make Thanksgiving eating disorder friendly

Thanksgiving and other holidays can be very stressful for people who have eating disorders. Often when families get together, the first thing they talk about is dieting and body size. It’s a national obsession and is even more prevalent on a food-based holiday.

If you have a child who has an eating disorder, it’s important to set some guidelines around food and body talk so that all family members and friends are aware of your desire to create an eating-disorder-friendly Thanksgiving.

We can’t control everything that happens at family gatherings, but at least we can express our wishes for a diet-free day. Here are some guidelines:

1. Don’t talk about diets

It’s very common for families to talk about the latest diet or “lifestyle change.” Men and women of all ages and sizes will passionately discuss their Whole 60 plan, Juice cleanse or gluten-free diet and the wonders it’s done for them personally or someone they know. Many people will talk about committing to going to the gym, taking up running, and other exercise programs designed to support weight loss.

As the parent of a child who has an eating disorder, by now you should know that diets have a 95% failure rate, and exercise does not lead to weight loss. But you don’t need to get into debates about the value of diets on Thanksgiving. Just ask your family members and friends to please not talk about dieting, which includes all forms of food restriction, food monitoring, and exercise with the goal of reducing body weight.

Your relatives and friends may honestly believe that talking about their latest diet program is the most interesting thing they have going on right now. They probably also feel compelled to share their success and “help” everyone else get “healthier.” This is not because they are bad people – it’s just an indication that they are living in a diet culture. Gently remind them that you’re in the process of healing a child who has trouble with an over-identification with food and exercise, and you would really appreciate it if they kept diet talk off the table.

Diet talk around someone who has an eating disorder is not benign. It is extremely dangerous.

Talk to friends and family members before the event, and gently steer conversations away from diet talk whenever necessary. Interrupt and redirect diet-based conversations as graciously as you can. If the gathering cannot stop talking about diets, you may need to excuse your family from the event. It’s OK (and necessary) to put your child’s recovery first.

2. Don’t talk about body size

Do you live in a family in which people’s body size is a common topic of discussion? Do people want to constantly discuss whether someone is larger or smaller than they were before? This can go both ways – from Aunt May telling your child she’s too skinny (in a bad way) to Aunt May telling your child he’s “bulked up” (in a good way).

Even the standard “you look healthy” or “you look great” can be difficult for someone who is in recovery for an eating disorder. This is because our disorders are based on an over-identification with our bodies. When people comment on our bodies, look critically at our bodies, and otherwise make our bodies (or anyone else’s body) a topic of discussion, it can be triggering.

Talk to your family and friends in advance, and let them know that it would be great if all talk of body size could be avoided if possible, especially if it’s directed at your child.

Whatever your child’s current weight, it should not be discussed or commented on.

During the event, it’s likely that people will slip up and start to talk about bodies. After all, this is a frequent topic of conversation. Uncle Jimmy may talk about how his ex-wife has “put on the pounds” since their divorce, and Grandpa may grunt and nod in affirmation.

Comments like that, especially when they are greeted with agreement, are absolutely unacceptable and dangerous to your child who has an eating disorder. You need to speak up and say something like “Jimmy, I would rather we didn’t talk about Margaret’s weight like that.”

If the group continues to criticize other people’s bodies, you may need to leave the gathering in order to protect your child. 

3. Don’t talk about stuffing yourself

Thanksgiving is our national “stuff yourself” holiday. Leading up to the event, people will look forward to a binge day during which they will gorge themselves on Thanksgiving foods and then sit around with their pants unbuttoned.

If people choose to binge on Thanksgiving, that’s fine, but it is not OK to talk about bingeing in front of a person who has an eating disorder.

Even though Grandma may think it’s perfectly acceptable and “has always been done,” you need to remind her that binge eating is an eating disorder behavior, and you have a child who has an eating disorder. Therefore, it is absolutely not all right to talk about binge eating this year (or, any year in the future).

4. Don’t talking about compensating for the meal

After the binge, people tend to talk about their compensatory behavior: “I’m not eating again for a week!” or “I’m going to the gym tomorrow!” or even behaviors they took to prepare for the meal: “I didn’t eat all week so that I could eat today!” or “I woke up early and went for a long run, so I’m allowed to eat!”

This sort of restriction is eating disorder behavior. You have a child who has an eating disorder. Therefore, talk of restriction or extra exercise to compensate for the Thanksgiving meal is absolutely unacceptable. 

Interrupt and redirect any and all conversations related to compensating for the Thanksgiving meal. You may worry that you’re being rude, but your child must be your first priority.

It’s not easy, but it’s necessary

None of these things is easy. We have agreed as a society that Thanksgiving involves all four of the above behaviors. But it’s your prerogative to change the conversation and, as the parent of a child who has an eating disorder, it is your responsibility to avoid the danger these four actions can have on his or her recovery.

Depending on your relationships, you may need to make a few phone calls in advance of Thanksgiving this year. If you haven’t told your family about your child’s eating disorder, this may be the moment to do so. However, if your child has specifically asked you not to tell your family, talk this through with your child’s therapist. We believe that eating disorders should be discussed more openly and honestly in our society, however, your child’s comfort and privacy come first. Schedule a special appointment with your child’s therapist to discuss this topic, and adhere to whatever agreements you make during that meeting.

If you are able to talk to your family about the eating disorder, consider sharing this article or otherwise giving them some tips or requests in advance to help smooth the way. It’s important to know that we live in a culture that naturally does not follow these four guidelines, but that doesn’t mean our families can’t buck culture and follow a kinder, more thoughtful Thanksgiving pattern that is free of diets and body talk.

It will be more challenging to follow these four guidelines if you are not able to talk to your family about the eating disorder. Nevertheless, parents can and must advocate for peaceful environments that support their children. You can tell your family that you are adopting these four guidelines this year so that they have a heads up in advance that you’ll be steering conversations based on these four guidelines.

Finally, if you feel your family cannot adapt to these four guidelines, it may be best to skip the large family dinner this year. Your child’s recovery must take priority, and if you have a family that is distinctly stuck in diet culture, you may need to sit the big gathering this year and opt instead for a smaller gathering of people who already know and follow Health At Every Size (HAES) principles and can easily follow these guidelines.

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