Nfld. & Labrador

'Food is not the enemy': Getting through the holidays with an eating disorder

For many people with eating disorders, the holiday season is a challenging time. Food galore, gatherings and uncomfortable conversations about weight and body image mean mental distress for people with living experience.

Planning for uncomfortable conversations and having a support system is key

Some people look forward to holiday feasts, but for others, a focus on food can be a source of anxiety, advocates say. (K2 PhotoStudio / Shutterstock)

The holidays are fast approaching and with them come gatherings, feasts and turkey dinners.

Yet for many people with eating disorders, those things don't mean joy but mental distress.

Andrea Oliver knows what that's like.

Oliver was diagnosed with bulimia and depression in 1999, during her first semester at university. For her, the holidays have been an especially difficult time of year since then.

"Even just going to family events on, say, Christmas Day, thinking about how much food will be there. Will it be a trigger for me? Are people paying attention to what I'm eating?" said Oliver.

"You don't really get to experience the joy and happiness that people experience in the holiday season because you're so focused on the eating portion of it."

Oliver is not alone.

According to the Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, or EDFNL, 7.8 per cent of the global population has an eating disorder. That's more than 40,600 people province-wide.

Andrea Oliver was diagnosed with bulimia and depression in 1999. Oliver says it is important to have a good support system that people with eating disorders can rely on during the holidays. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

Paul Thomey, executive director of the foundation, agrees that the holiday season can be triggering.

"The holiday seasons with their focus on food and body image and large gatherings … make it much more difficult for somebody with an eating disorder," said Thomey.

People are constantly confronted with their biggest fear during the holiday season, Oliver says.

"You're brought into a situation where food is everywhere, obviously that's going to be triggering for some people," she said.

The result can be anxiety and depression but also isolation when dinner and party invitations are turned down to avoid facing this fear.

An eating disorder is an umbrella term that includes anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and avoidant and restrictive food intake disorder, among others.

To help people through the holidays, EDFNL has published two newsletters, one for people with living experience and one for their friends and family.

Thomey cautions people against making food or weight the main focus of conversations.

"Talk about the other reasons why it's such a great season and why you want to be together. Do activities that aren't totally related to food and aren't totally related to speaking about body image," said Thomey.

For people with eating disorders, says Thomey, it is crucial to be mentally prepared for triggering conversations, so they know what to do when feeling overwhelmed.

"If you're not comfortable with it, find a way to get yourself out of the situation, or at least be prepared with answers that will move it in a direction that you're more comfortable with," says Thomey.

Paul Thomey is executive director of the Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. Thomey says the holidays are often difficult for people with eating disorders as a lot of conversations circle around food and body image. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

Oliver adds that having a trusted person who can help in challenging situations is essential.

"It's good to have a support system," said Oliver. "If you have like a close family member or friend that you can contact last-minute, like a text or a phone call and say 'I am struggling,' it's really important to do that."

Yet, Oliver says over time, she has also learned what counts. She has a personal piece of advice for anyone dreading the holiday season.

"From spending 20-plus years of my life thinking about and acting on eating disorder behaviour and not spending time with family and friends, you miss out on all the important things in life and life is so short.... Really, there isn't good and bad food. Food should be enjoyed, and that's what it's meant for, and it's meant to bring people together," said Oliver.

"Try to look past the eating disorder, and just try to enjoy your life and try to enjoy the food, because the food is not the enemy."

If you or someone you know needs support, you can contact the Eating Disorder Foundation of N.L. for advice by calling (709) 722-0500.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Henrike Wilhelm


Henrike Wilhelm is a journalist working with CBC's bureau in St. John's.