29 Things People With Eating Disorders Want People at Their Thanksgiving Table to Know
“I’ll have to run off all these calories tomorrow…”
“I’m going to be ‘bad’ and have a second slice of pie.”
“I didn’t eat all day to get ready for this meal…”
While Thanksgiving is a time to spend with family and be thankful, it’s unfortunately a time when comments like these from loved ones are the norm. This kind of talk seems so embedded in our “eating culture.” Most people say self-depreciating or distorted comments without thinking twice.
And while eating disorders are certainly not all about food — comments like these can really hurt a person in recovery, or in the midst, of an eating disorder. What someone says in passing turns into fuel for the eating disorder beast, and because of this, holidays can be hard for those doing their best to heal their relationship with food.
To find out what people with eating disorders need this Thanksgiving, we teamed up with the National Eating Disorder Association to ask people in its community: What do you want your friends and family to know on Thanksgiving?
If you know or suspect someone with an eating disorder is sitting at your dinner table this year, please read what they have to say:
1. “Please don’t make comments about how fattening the food is, how many calories are in it, the diet you think you need to put yourself on after the holidays, or anything similar.”
2. “Let me make my own plate and don’t comment on portion size or what I selected. Starting with just a little bit helps ease the tension of being expected to eat as much as others.”
3. “Don’t ask me if ‘I kept it down’ after we finish dinner. Actually had a family member whisper it my ear one time and I was devastated. Regardless of whether I did or didn’t, it simply made a tough day worse.
4. “(This might be kind of an odd request but oh well.) Put away the bathroom scales if you can. It’s just too much temptation for those of us who are basically addicted to weighing.”
5. “Please respect I may need to eat on a different schedule than you or may eat different foods to fulfill my meal plan. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to participate in Thanksgiving. It just means I’m focusing on gratitude as the theme of the holiday rather than food.”
6. “Please don’t talk about ‘being bad’ while eating or say ‘diet starts tomorrow’ or any of that to anyone — not to me, anyone else or about yourself.”
7. “Recognize how much of a trigger this is for me. I agree that conversations should be about anything but what is on my plate or what I look like… ‘You look healthy’ is devastating and patronizing.’”
8. “Remember I’m really upset with myself during Thanksgiving. I’m mad that one day of ‘overeating’ could risk my health. I’m mad that, despite my years of treatment, I don’t trust myself to eat like everyone else does on Thanksgiving. Despite my years in recovery, this day sucks. I have a really hard time with the idea that everyone around me is actively and openly eating until they can’t eat anymore while I’m trying to not do that, while I try to act like it’s any other meal. Eating a normal portion on Thanksgiving is nearly impossible, but I don’t have the luxury of having that extra piece of pie because of the potential for a trigger. I have managed to get through the last two Thanksgivings without unreasonable potions, but it’s a huge struggle, especially with everyone else eating seconds or thirds. Sure, I haven’t been ‘symptomatic’ for a long time, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy to watch others binge while I still measure out my mashed potatoes.”
9. “If the topic of conversation could be less about the food we are eating and more about what we are thankful for, it’s a lot easier to feel safe eating what I want and need.”
10. “No one needs to ‘go for a run’ tomorrow because they ate pie. And no one needs to prioritize what they eat so they can eat later. And no one needs to make comments like ‘I feel as big as a whale’ or ‘let’s throw up so we can eat some more.’ Most importantly — don’t insinuate you can do things like this and I can’t, don’t make me seem like the alien.”
11. “Unless you’re saying, ‘That looks good,’ or ‘Which is that so I can try it?’ or something similar, do not comment on what’s on/not on/left on my plate.”
12. “Hearing people talk about how full they are/how ‘bad’ they ate can be upsetting and difficult because, to my mind, it ‘confirms’ my ED thoughts, so understand if I need to remove myself from the conversation.”
13. “When they do not know what to say, it’s OK to say nothing. Sometimes leaving space for silence is more profound and meaningful than grasping at trying to say the right thing. I’m not ashamed of my struggle nor the recovery and neither should they be. Trust the healing process and trust me.”
14. “The hardest part is struggling to be present and enjoy your family while these thoughts about food are trying to take over your mind. Sometimes all I want to be able to focus on a conversation and it’s impossible because food is the only thing I can think about.”
15. “This holiday will already be difficult for me so please do not make my body, food or my recovery a part of a conversation. Let’s focus on something that’s more positive.”
16. “Don’t be offended if I leave the party early. Don’t comment on my ‘willpower.’”
17. “I need to simplify the menu and keep the mess minimal. My eating disorder is not just about the food — it’s about my perfectionism, control, compulsion, obsession and determining my value based on what I accomplished (“Oh, look how much work you did! Oh, look how beautiful the house looks!”), not just by who I am. It’s about my anxiety with the planning, shopping and preparation. About me choosing to not be overwhelmed. It’s about me working so hard to redefine what this holiday is about — my family — and not wanting to make it all about the food. I don’t want to spend all my time with the food, I want to spend my time with the family. It’s about me making new traditions, so I am not triggered by old memories and behaviors, but allowing the recovering me the opportunity to practice joy, spontaneity and freedom. In order to do all that, I have to be allowed to redefine the holiday, in a simplified, less stressful, imperfect, not all about me way.”
18. “Understand I struggle with my self-worth and my plate on Thanksgiving. My social anxiety and eating disorder are screaming at me the whole time. Your criticism or comments can trigger me easier when I’m already on the edge and fighting so hard to be ‘normal.’”
19. “Don’t say … ‘Oh just have the one,’ ‘You can start again tomorrow,’ ‘You’re not even fat,’ ‘You don’t need to lose weight,’ ‘When you’re as big as me you can worry.’ This is not a diet, nor is it a lifestyle choice. It’s an eating disorder and it’s horrific. I honestly wish with all my heart and soul I could enjoy these social occasions like everybody else, but the truth is I’ve had anxiety about any social occasion for weeks leading up to it because of how much I’ll potentially eat. The whole time I’m there is a battle between my recovered self and my eating disorder so please be kind and enable my recovery, not my illness.”
20. “If I don’t show up at all because I just can’t cope with that big of a meal, please don’t be ashamed of me and say I have the flu. Three years in a row.”
21. “While this may be a fun, celebratory day for you, it is one of the hardest days of the year for me. A holiday dedicated to the thing I most fear. Please don’t try to force me eat more, I have been in recovery for years, and I know what portions I need. Please don’t stare judgmentally at my plate or at me while I am struggling to take a bite. Although I’m able to eat intuitively throughout the rest of the year, Thanksgiving is a hard day because of how much I build it up in my head when I was sick. It’s hard for me to eat intuitively, when for the past nine years I have made myself starve leading up to this day, overexercise because of it and refuse to eat the meal with everyone else. If you want to be of help, instead of forcing another piece of pie onto my plate, ask me how I am doing. Chances are, I’m riddled with anxiety, my eating disorder thoughts are screaming and I can’t make them shut up, as the coping skills I usually use aren’t working on this particular day.”
22. “I’m trying. It may not look like it to you, but I am really trying. It’s a constant battle between reality and that little voice it my head whispering horrible, negative things. Because of this, it may take me longer to decide what goes on my plate. I will probably pick at it, too. It will probably also take me longer to eat than you. But I am trying. When I look up from my plate almost in tears, a reassuring smile and nod go a long way. When I don’t want to talk to anyone after dinner, just sitting by me would mean a lot. And if I don’t want dessert, please be OK with it. Also know, it’s nothing you did or cooked. This is all me and my head. Not you. Don’t be offended.”
23. “Don’t assume I’m going to struggle. I may have a great day. I don’t need anyone questioning everything I actually chose to eat or following me to the bathroom. Have faith in me.”
24. “All food is good food! There is nothing ‘bad’ or ‘cheating’ about food made to nourish our bodies. Above all, love each other and understand that sometimes family members say things without realizing how it sounds to someone fighting with an eating disorder. Keep communication lines open and, if necessary, give yourself a five minute break outside or in another room to process your emotions/feelings if a trigger occurs. Happy holidays!”
25. “If you offer me food and I don’t accept it, don’t keep offering — ‘A small slice won’t hurt, just try a bite, one piece will be OK’ — I have triggers I am fighting so don’t make it harder on me.”
26. “I’ve been preparing for this day for weeks. Months. Small portions to you are huge portions to me. I’m exhausting every single mental resource I have to keep it together. I still cry when I get home.”
27. “Be patient with me. Understand that Thanksgiving is overwhelming for me, so allow me to go at my own pace. Try not to comment on the amount of food I have and do not make a big deal that I’m eating. It would be helpful to not talk about how much weight people gain on Thanksgiving, but I understand that is normal talk for most people — just try to be mindful when I’m present. All I ask is to be mindful, aware and supportive and Thanksgiving will be a smooth day for myself and my family.”
28. “Talk to me about what’s going on in my life, not what’s on my plate. Please don’t say things like ‘that’s all your going to eat?’ or judge the state of my recovery by how much I eat or don’t eat. And please don’t say ‘good job’ when I have eaten, as my eating disorder hears that as I have eaten too much. Please understand if I am quiet or anxious it is nothing personal. I am doing the best I can.
29. “Please don’t comment on how I look. Please don’t comment on what I am eating. Please stop talking about gaining weight around the holidays. Basically, let us all try to enjoy this day with as little anxiety as possible by not discussing weight or appearances. I’m excited for Thanksgiving for one of the very first times, but I also have a huge fear that my happiness will be ripped from me the second the food comes out. (Sending strength, love, and positive vibes to all my sisters and brothers in the ED world. You’ve got this.)”
*Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.