When eating’s a problem… surviving the feasting season

A man with a party hat is pictured at the Christmas table, laden with dishes of food.
Focus on festive food …Photo credit: Jim Blob Blann, Creative Commons

Many people use their relationship with food to deal with how they are feeling, and Covid-19 has made this especially challenging for some. Friends and family need to keep a watchful eye and offer support where needed this Christmas. 

Sadly, as a nation we have seen a huge increase in the hospitalisation of children and young people battling eating disorders and that has continued to rise throughout the pandemic, with a surge of new cases and relapses. This year follows a 40% increase in children referred to hospital for eating disorder issues prior to the pandemic and a similar rise during the pandemic.

Each Christmas and New Year we see a spike in relapses and an increase in these problems and this Christmas will be particularly hard, with families and large groups once again reuniting, increasing the pressures for those who have a fraught relationship with food and their bodies. 

Christmas is always a time of stress for people with mental health issues, especially eating disorders, owing to the food fest atmosphere and general over-indulgence. It can be a frightening time of year, with one of the main triggers being a sufferer’s relationship with food.

‘Christmas is a stressful time for those with eating disorders, with so many constant reminders of food and feasting’

It’s almost impossible not to think about food, with constant reminders like advent calendars and feasting on Christmas Day. The festive season is a time of cheer for most people and one of the ways we share this is through celebratory meals, but anyone with an eating disorder may feel excluded.

Food brings us pleasure and joy, it is more than just fuel, and feasting together is part of the festive experience. Overindulging in this instance is considered culturally acceptable and is part of the celebration of events. However, when an individual moves from a healthy relationship to food and starts using food as a prop and a coping mechanism, this is called emotional eating.

Secret eating and overeating too much of one thing, because of stress or anxiety, will be part of this. Isolating oneself and not sharing problems with others is a key sign, as is the odd occasion of purging, such as excessive gym use. 

Tell-tale signs

Signs and symptoms to look out for include over-exercising, disappearing to the toilet for lengthy periods during mealtimes and being overly controlling on food consumption. The individual will display patterned behaviours around control and purging, such as a ritualised relationship towards food and calorie counting at every opportunity. Mood problems such as depression and anxiety over social standing will be obvious, as will body image problems. 

If you think you or a loved one might be having problems with eating habits or feel differently about food, you or they could have an eating disorder or be developing one.

How to get help

Getting to the point where you can enjoy a meal can take a lot of help from others, especially health professionals. If you think this is an eating disorder, you need to get professional help as soon as you think this is a problem.

First call your GP and ask for an extended appointment to talk about your concerns. Don’t go alone if self-referred, take someone you trust along to offer the support you need. Most importantly, turn up well informed.

The guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provide very comprehensive information for the general public. Treatment can be very successful, but as with all mental health issues, the earlier it is sought the better. 

Tips on coping

  • Build a support network – Go into the festive season with a support system, whether it’s a friend you can text or a family member you can talk to in real life. 
  • Make time for yourself – Engage in self-care, take time out from family and friends, go for a walk, prioritise sleep, meditate when you have a quiet moment. 
  • Adjust expectations – This has been another challenging year – and Christmas does not need to be perfect. Limit time on social media and instead focus on the here and now. Make the most of this season and enjoy yourself without any judgement.

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