Mental health campaigners have warned of the added pressure of eating disorders, urging people to be mindful of comments on weight and dieting this Christmas.
Over 1.6 million people in the UK have an eating disorder which campaigners say has increased from previous years due to pressures from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hope Virgo, author and founder of #DumpTheScales said: “Christmas is an extremely challenging time for people with eating disorders, from this focus on food, to the lack of routine, to families getting together.
“For people with eating disorders it also feels like this marker every year, everyone watching to see how you are coping.
“I have had my fair share of bad Christmas’ where things haven’t worked out, or a plan hasn’t been kept but over time I have learnt how to manage these.
“I can now go in to this period confidently setting my boundaries and feeling able to assert myself where necessary.
“We need to ensure throughout this period that people with eating disorders and their feelings are being taken seriously.”
Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, have the highest mortality rate among psychiatric disorders with anorexia nervosa having the highest rate affecting young adults.
Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, Consultant Psychiatrist in the NHS and Clinical Lead at The Soke, said: “The Christmas mantra ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ may roll easily off the tongue for many but can be triggering for those with eating disorders.
“Being around family members over the festive period may generate critical comments from family members, lead to greater scrutiny over how much and how quickly food is consumed at meal times and challenge the need for control that lies at the heart of many eating disorders.”
23-year-old Lauren* from South West London was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa aged 10, she said: “The prospect of family gatherings over meals is always anxiety provoking at the best of times.
“We have an annual Christmas dinner at my Grandpa’s house and I felt guilty this year when the first emotion I felt [when hearing it wouldn’t be happening due to Covid-19] was relief.
“Trying to focus on other aspects of the meal such as trying to enjoy time with family members you haven’t seen in a long time, like my baby cousins, and changing the subject of the conversation to topics unrelated to food has always helped during previous years.
“I don’t think I am alone in feeling particularly anxious about January this year.
“I anticipate that the usual adverts showcasing post-Christmas weight loss solutions will be snowballed into one with the ‘post-lockdown’ diet chat. Both are in the media and thrown into lunchtime conversations at work already and are something which I am personally dreading.
“I think we will all need to build up our support networks of the few friends we do trust to have a blanket statement ready such as ‘hey, I really don’t feel comfortable talking about dieting and weight loss, is it alright if we talk about something else?’ for shutting down these conversations early in order to protect ourselves.”
Hope’s tips for managing Christmas with an eating disorder:
Tip 1: Planning
Have a rough outline of what your Christmas period will look like; make sure this includes the days before and the days afterwards.
Depending on where you are at in your recovery from an eating disorder will determine how much structure you put around this but having a rough outline with key meals planned, some timings embedded and always making sure that you have some time for yourself.
It is really helpful, if you are able to, to share this with someone who might be with you for Christmas so that you know that certain elements of the plan will happen.
Within this I do recommend working out where there is some flexibility with the plan.
Tip 2: Identify your support network
Eating disorders want us to feel isolated, alone and like we are the odd one out but it is important that we assess who we have around us.
Is there one person that you can be honest with about what is going on? You don’t necessarily need to be with them on the day, but have them on hand if you need to check in and send a quick message.
There are also some fantastic organisations with support networks out there too.
Tip 3: Distraction is key
Have things in place before and after meals such as watching TV, going for a nice walk with someone or playing a board game.
If you need distraction but don’t want to leave the kitchen, how about becoming the ‘chief washer upper’ for the day.
Tip 4: Move on from diet chat
We all have that person that we know who obsesses over diet culture, but sitting at a table where someone is often talking about dieting, or commenting on plate size can feel really challenging.
If this happens to you, keep the conversation moving on.
Have those ideas up your sleeve ready to bring out if helpful: comment on the weather, ask a direct question about what they did last weekend. All of this will help you to move the focus.
Tips for supporting someone with an eating disorder:
There will be people this Christmas that you might see that you haven’t seen for months, so please be mindful of commenting on weight, portion size and talking about lockdown weight.
Whether you know someone has an eating disorder or not this can be extremely triggering. Remember we don’t know what is going on if a person loses or gains weight.
Whilst having general conversations please do avoid saying things like “I earned this Christmas lunch/pudding/treat because I dieted for the last month.”
If you have someone in your family who you know may know does this, please talk to them about it beforehand and lay out the guidance.
Make sure you sit down with the person beforehand to talk this over and when it is finalised please don’t change last minute plans around food. Additionally, within the plans make sure there are activities that don’t always happen around food.
Remind the person that “it will be okay”, check in to ask “what can I do to support you around the day?” and remind them that you are there if they want to offload.
More information on dealing with an eating disorder at Christmas can be found here.
*Name has been changed
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