At any given time, at least 1.25 million people in the UK are struggling with an eating disorder.
And Christmas can be a particularly triggering time for those who have a difficult relationship with food.
Despite stereotypes and tropes, eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, race, gender, sexuality or background.
In fact, the NHS estimates that one in every six adults is at risk of developing an eating disorder, and the vast majority of people with eating disorders are within a ‘normal’ weight range.
It’s important at this time of year to be mindful of others, as well as your own mental health.
Director of external affairs at Beat, a leading eating disorder charity, Tom Quinn says: ‘The Christmas period can be extremely difficult for people with all kinds of eating disorders.
‘There’s a huge emphasis on food, and the pressure to eat large amounts can be triggering for people with binge eating disorder and bulimia, as well as causing anxiety for people with anorexia.
‘People with eating disorders often try to hide their illness and at Christmas when eating is a social occasion – often with people who they do not see frequently – they may feel ashamed and want to isolate themselves from others.
‘At the same time, Christmas can be a source of distress for families who are caring for someone with an eating disorder.’
How can you look after yourself at this time of year?
It’s important to plan ahead and openly discuss when and how food will be involved over the Christmas period, so you know what to expect and don’t have to make decisions on the spot.
Tom says preparation here is key.
‘If you feel up to it, have a “practice meal” with a trusted loved one and reflect on how you feel before, during and after,’ he says.
‘You could agree on a sign to discreetly show when you need support and encouragement, either during a meal or socially.’
It can help to steer attention away from food, so once meals are over, find activities that focus on something else – such as a family walk, playing board games, or watching a funny film together.
Having this planned in can give you something to look forward to, helping to balance any difficult emotions.
‘If you’re caring for a loved one who’s unwell, you could have a quiet word with any visitors before they arrive, as well-intended being aware that comments such as “Don’t you look healthy?” or “Haven’t you done well eating your dinner?” could be misinterpreted and cause more harm than good,’ he adds.
How can you recover if this period does trigger you?
Tom says: ‘If you start to recognise eating disorder thoughts or behaviours occurring, or think you may be at risk of relapsing, speak to your GP or care team at the very earliest opportunity.
‘If you feel comfortable doing so, it can also be helpful to speak to your support network, such as trusted friends or family members, about what you’re going through.’
Tom stresses that recovery is possible – even with a relapse.
If you need some extra support over the festive season, Beat’s Helpline is open every day for calls, emails and webchats on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk.
It’ll be open from 4pm to midnight from the December 23 to January 3, and outside of those dates will be open from 9am – midnight during the week, and 4pm – midnight on weekends and bank holidays.
If you’re a carer, Beat is running a free online course to help you to support your loved one at this time of year.
Our Coping with Celebrations course will look at why the holidays can be a stressful time for someone with an eating disorder, explain strategies to plan for the day and how you can practice self-care around the festive period.
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