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How to 'Reset' After the Holidays When You're in Eating Disorder Recovery

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The holidays can be hard for everyone, but especially for those who are going through eating disorder (ED) recovery. Sometimes it feels like we can’t escape the leftover Christmas cookies brought into work, seasonal Starbucks drinks, cinnamon rolls, coffee cakes, candy canes, Oreo balls…the list goes on. And I love these things, I really do. But there’s a fine line between restricting holiday desserts, enjoying them, overindulging and binge eating.

I spend some of my free time mentoring others who are walking through the early stages of eating disorder recovery, and every single one of them has mentioned struggling with this delicate balance. Is there a way to enjoy holiday treats without overindulging? Is overindulging the same thing as binging? Is it restricting if I say “no” to a dessert I really don’t want? How do we make sense of this? Even at this point in recovery, the holidays can still be tricky for me. ED still tries to sneak in at times, and tries to condemn me for what I eat or don’t eat. If I say no to dessert, he tells me I am going to relapse. If I have more than one dessert, he tells me I will blow up like a balloon. I’m happy to report those things haven’t happened, and that I am in a place where I can share some of the things that have helped me most in my recovery during the holiday season.

Here are five tips for resetting after the holidays:

1. Resist the urge to purge. It is important for me to list this tip first, because I know how sneaky and manipulative ED can be. To “reset” does not mean to act on urges to purge away calories or the foods we have eaten. That is the opposite of resetting. Purging behaviors set us back, and set us up to establish the same binge or restriction cycles we are trying to break free of. Resetting doesn’t equal purging, and it’s important for us to make that distinction in our minds.

2. Reset. To “reset” is to mindfully and objectively evaluate our intake for the past few days, and how those foods made us feel physically, mentally and emotionally. This means we don’t place judgment on what we have or haven’t eaten. When we reset, there is no room for “you shouldn’t have” or “I can’t believe you ate ______.” When we objectively reflect back on our recent meal patterns, we think about what we’ve eaten, how it has made us feel and if we actually enjoyed the dessert. If we feel like we’ve felt sort of sluggish because we’ve had too many Christmas cookies, it’s OK to back off a bit. By backing off, we are choosing to take a step towards mindful, intuitive eating. On the flip side, if we find that we haven’t allowed ourselves to have any of our favorite holiday treats, it may be time to introduce one of our “fear foods” with a trusted friend or family member. When we reset, we choose to eat regular meals (despite the food we have or haven’t eat that day), we drink lots of water, we go about our day in a way that is mindful and intentional, without being obsessive and ridged. We move forward without dwelling on the past, we make decisions that honor our mind, body and spirit, and, we choose to eat the food that enhances our physical and psychological well-being. When we reset, there is no restricting or purging… just balance.

3. Establish healthy boundaries. Decide which desserts you love, and which ones you could live without. Do your grandma’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies make your mouth water? Are cinnamon rolls apart of your Christmas morning celebration? Enjoy those things. Is your co-worker’s homemade peanut butter cookie just mediocre? Do you secretly despise eating your aunt’s fruit cake? Are you eating those mini-chocolate candies because you genuinely want them, or for a different reason? These are the types of things we want to think about when we are trying to be mindful this holiday season (and as we move forward). It’s OK to say yes, but it’s also OK to say no.

4. Understand the difference between overindulging and binge eating. This is a big one. There is big difference between overindulging and binge eating. To overindulge is to eat one (or two) too many sweets on a certain night or at a certain occasion. People often overindulge at holiday parties and holiday gatherings. The food is rich and the company is good. After the outing, you may feel more full than normal, and you may realize that you ate too much.

Binge-eating, on the other hand, is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food (often quickly and to the point of discomfort), a feeling of loss of control during a binge and experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards. This is tricky because individuals who have restrictive eating disorders may feel guilt and/or shame after eating just one or two holiday cookies. However, this is not a binge. Binging is uncontrolled, rapid and often done in secret. It’s eating a larger amount of food than the average person during a given period of time, and feeling completely out of control during that process. Most people I talk to think they have gone on a large binge, when really, they have either eaten a “normal” amount or may have had one too many cookies. We’ve all done it, we all still do it, and we all have areas we need to improve in. Our bodies are smart; there is always grace and provision available for us to “reset” when our bodies when they are telling us that we need to. If your recent eating patterns match up with the binge eating definition listed above, click here to read more about taking steps towards recovery.

5. Resist the urge to jump on the “New Year’s Resolution” dieting bandwagon. Imagine you wake up one morning and bake a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies. The smell of the cookies in the oven makes your mouth water. The cookies turned out perfect, and your coffee just finished brewing. However, you can’t have the cookies. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. You can’t even have one small bite,  because you aren’t allowed to. There is too much risk associated with those cookies. So, what do you spend the next few days doing? You obsess over the cookies you so desperately crave, yet cannot have. Not because of any medical condition, not because you have an allergy and not because you cannot afford them. Physically, you have the green light to enjoy that sweet cookie; but psychologically, you cannot have one. You fear the weight gain that it could cause, the calories, the fat, the sugar… and the power it has over you. The cookie has the potential to ruin your day, and you can’t take that risk. You can’t be “bad” again.

This sort of black and white thinking is eerily similar to disordered eating. And what does the research tell us? It tells us that dieting doesn’t work. Yo-yo dieting leads to one of two things: disordered eating or weight gain. Dieting and disordered eating are essentially one in the same. They both don’t work, and often they both leave us worse off than when we started.

To reset is to re-focus on what our body needs most. It’s reflecting on where we are at and where we want to be, and recognizing what we need to do to get back on track, whether we have eaten one too many cookies or haven’t had one at all. It’s setting goals that aren’t influenced by anyone but ourselves. It’s working towards a life of purpose and meaning, one that is not hindered by the food we do or don’t eat. It’s giving ourselves grace and practicing self-compassion for where we are and who we are today. It’s refusing to be defined by the past, but not forgetting the lessons we have learned that will help us move forward. It’s being gentle with ourselves and understanding that change is gradual.

To reset is to take a deep breath, and keep moving forward.

*Special thanks to Reba Sloan for her impeccable knowledge, wisdom, and discernment related to this topic. Your honesty and words of encouragement have meant the world to me. Check out her website if you or someone you is looking to make peace with food and establish a more balanced diet.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Getty image via Nelosa

Originally published: December 30, 2017
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