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Managing eating disorders during the holidays

The holidays are a time many people look forward to, filled with food and family gatherings. But for many people, especially those with eating disorders, this time of the year can be challenging.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, this includes people of all ages and genders.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are complex and typically develop as a result of genetic, psychological, social and/or environmental factors. They often begin with a well-intended attempt to “get healthy” or “eat healthier” but may look different for each individual.

How the holidays affect those with eating disorders

Unfortunately, comments about food and weight happen frequently in social situations, especially around holidays with strong food traditions. These comments can be particularly hurtful to those with active eating disorders, or those who have recently recovered from an eating disorder, but they can have a negative impact on anyone who hears them.

Kids suffering from eating disorders often find themselves particularly challenged during the holiday season. Whether it’s a conversation about weight and food, talk of overeating or the sight of all that food, triggers can be everywhere. But every child is different, so it’s important to recognize individual challenges so that you can best help your child cope.

How to support kids with eating disorders during the holidays

Avoid talk of food, weight and dieting
In general, it’s best to avoid talk about food, weight and dieting altogether. It is not recommended for children or adolescents to diet, and some “fad” diets – like juice cleanses or cutting out all carbohydrates – in particular can be extremely dangerous. Dieting is a risk factor for the development of eating disorders and generally promotes disordered eating behaviors, such as restriction, binging or purging, rather than the individual’s overall health.

Normalize celebratory foods
Try to normalize celebratory foods that may have previously been labeled as “guilty,” “cheating” or “indulgent.” Enjoying food at holidays with family and friends is a normal and enjoyable. We don’t want to give kids the message that they have to “earn” any foods.

Create a plan ahead of time
If your child has an active eating disorder, work ahead to create a plan with your child and their treatment team. It’s critical for both parents and the child to be on the same page about what to expect and what is expected of them.

Be the best support system
It’s helpful to remember that families are in the best position to support children and loved ones through an eating disorder. It’s a common misconception that families are the cause of eating disorders. This is simply not true. Many parents and siblings are the best support system for a child or teen with an eating disorder. During the holidays, make sure to let your child know that you are there for them whenever they need you.

What should I do as a parent if I suspect my child has an eating disorder?

Parents are often the best judge, as they know what is normal and abnormal for their kid’s behavior. If a parent suspects an eating disorder, even if there hasn’t been any changes in the child’s weight, it’s recommended to see your pediatrician right away.

Parents can also contact the Children’s Minnesota Center for the Treatment of Eating Disorders directly for a specialist evaluation.

Children’s Minnesota Center for the Treatment of Eating Disorders

At the Center for the Treatment of Eating Disorders, we use a tailor-made approach for each patient to deliver evidence-based treatments to patients of all ages and with different types of eating disorders.

This is the only hospital-based program in the Twin Cities to offer immediate access for medical stabilization related to eating disorders. In other words, if a child, adolescent or young adult is experiencing medical complications from an eating disorder, we’ll admit him or her to the hospital right away — any time of day or night — and our expert staff will help the patient reach a stable condition.

Alexandra Rothstein