For people who have a difficult relationship with food and/or their bodies, Thanksgiving can be a miserable nightmare of a holiday. It is a day completely centered around food and eating. For many people, these are pleasant or even pleasurable topics. However, for anyone dealing with disordered eating, these topics range from very uncomfortable to terrifying.
Thoughts about food and weight are always front and center for a person with disordered eating. But in a very private way. For them, food and weight must be closely monitored and controlled or “the worst” could happen. Given these very high stakes, their emotions and self-worth become closely tied to how they eat and how their body looks (to them). Food and weight are not easy breezy topics to discuss with others. They are dreaded adversaries and must be tightly controlled.
Control and privacy are both seriously challenged on Thanksgiving. When that person has to be in a room full of food they didn’t choose and around other people who are excitedly talking about the food and eating a lot and talking about how much weight they’re going to gain and how bad that is, and that person is expected to eat a meal, their private hell becomes much harder to manage. It’s a little like asking a recovering alcoholic to a blowout cocktail party where everyone talks about how amazing alcohol is. There’s a lot of white-knuckling-it going on.
Have I mentioned that it’s a challenging holiday? For someone trying to stick to a meal plan, or not overeat, or not look too weird about food, this holiday is very challenging. For someone who gets paralyzed trying to decide which foods can be tolerated and how much of them are allowed, this holiday is very challenging. For someone who hates how they look and hates having to eat in front of others, this holiday is very challenging.
To keep the challenges manageable, preparation is incredibly helpful. My patients and I plan for their specific Thanksgiving scenario, often weeks in advance. We identify the challenges they are likely to face and create specific strategies to help them deal with each. We strategize about how they are going to stick to their strategies.
Below, I’ve listed some of the common challenges that show up around Thanksgiving and some general strategies for managing them. Notice that a majority of the strategies are implemented before Thanksgiving day. You have to take time to prepare yourself to go into the day with the attitude, motivation, and strategies that will work for you. The general goal is to try to get through the day in a way that you feel good about.
- People around you talking about the food that is going to be there and how much they are going to eat.
This talk often starts days before, and it continues through the Thanksgiving meal itself. Being constantly reminded about an anxiety-provoking situation, especially while trying to eat, increases stress and makes it harder to make useful choices.
- The opportunity to eat more than you are comfortable with.
Having lots of yummy food available can be very scary if you are afraid of overeating or have almost any sort of challenge with food. This often causes an increase in stress and even more focus on food intake and weight in the days or weeks prior to Thanksgiving. It is a primary cause of high stress throughout Thanksgiving day.
- The food itself: what to put on your plate.
Choosing food – especially with others watching – is challenging for anyone with self-imposed restrictions about which foods they allow and which foods they label as “bad.”
- People quasi-bingeing around you.
If you struggle with overeating or bingeing, it is very hard not to do it when others seem to be. It can also be hard to eat enough when people around you seem to be eating too much.
- People talking about how much weight they’re going to gain because of this meal, and how they’re going to work it off.
The thought of gaining weight is scary enough. To know that it is best for you not to “work it off” in any way just adds to the level of difficulty.
- Feeling overwhelmed, negative about everything, stressed to the max trying to manage all of the emotion that comes up with being around food and all of these people.
All of your buttons are getting pushed at once.
- Being around people who may judge your weight, ask you about your weight, and/or talk about their weight and their latest thoughts about losing weight.
- What to wear when nothing seems flattering or comfortable.
Especially if you have family who talk about or judge weight.
- How to handle food the next day if you perceived yourself as eating more than intended.
The very strong inclination is to compensate in some way, driven by the fear of weight gain and/or the feeling that you “failed.”
- Start by identifying what your challenge spots are likely to be.
Be as specific as possible. Try to do this at least a week ahead of Thanksgiving.
- Spend time clarifying your intentions for that day.
Instead of focusing on how hard the day could be, focus on how to make the day meaningful for yourself. Don’t skimp on this one. Really take some time and think about what could feel meaningful about this day for you. You may decide it would be meaningful to spend time with certain people at the gathering. Or to take photos throughout the day. Or to focus on gratitude, or on feeling proud of yourself for staying out of the family drama. Figure out how you will stick to this intention – set reminders on your phone, write it on your hand. Set yourself up for success. This one by itself can be a game-changer
- Prepare for where your mind will go when it’s left unsupervised in a stressful situation.
When you’re not paying attention, do you keep assessing your “problem” body parts? Do you automatically count the calories you’ve eaten so far? Are you anticipating Aunt Marge saying that you look like you’re “enjoying your food”? Have a talk with yourself ahead of time, and plan for those moments. Think about how to shift your focus to something more useful when those moments arise. For example, you might take 10 seconds to re-connect with your intentions for the day, find someone interesting to chat with, take dirty dishes to the kitchen, or start a game of 20 Questions.
- Prepare for the actual food part of the day.
Unless you are practicing intuitive eating, decide ahead of time how much you are going to eat and perhaps which foods you will eat. If there is not likely to be a food there that would be helpful for you to have, bring it. I help people on a very basic level decide how may plates of appetizers, how many plates of the main meal, and how many plates of dessert they will have. We might talk about how much of each type of food they plan to put on that plate. If you have a dietitian, the two of you will make more specific plans.
- During the meal itself, focus on the stories being told or on people’s hairstyles or on the song that you’re singing loudly to yourself in your head.
Do not focus on what others are eating. Do not focus on the thought that others are watching what you eat. Remind yourself why you will proceed with your plan for handling food today.
- Prepare for the overwhelm, negativity, and general stress.
Identify general coping strategies that will help reduce your stress in this situation. Bring some inspirational quotes to read to yourself as needed. Or funny YouTube videos. Make a list of strategies to try and bring it with you. Plan to take time-outs during the Thanksgiving festivities when you need a break. For example, go into an empty room and peruse social media, practice diaphragmatic breathing, hang out with whatever pet is around, or ask your favorite cousin to go for a 5-minute walk.
- If possible, designate someone to be your ally for the day.
Someone who knows your general situation, who you can vent to throughout the day as needed or help steer conversations in a different direction. If there are no contenders at the gathering, have a friend on-call to text.
- When others are talking about food and weight, be ready to change the conversation.
Come prepared with alternative topics, and yes, be prepared for it to feel awkward when you do change topics. Remind yourself that the awkwardness is worth it. Ask people to talk about one person or event they are thankful for. Organize games. Talk about favorite movies or TV shows. Ask about everyone’s favorite holiday traditions or what they are looking forward to in the new year. If possible, explicitly ask everyone to not talk about food or weight. If none of this is a possibility, excuse yourself and go somewhere else. Do not stay in those conversations. They put your head in unhelpful places.
- Decide how you will respond to inevitable questions about your weight, love life, career, etc.
Be ready with practiced responses that steer the conversation elsewhere. It might be a quick, “Everything’s fine, nothing new. How have you been?” Consider putting up a firm boundary: “I appreciate your interest, but that’s a subject I don’t want to go into today. Tell me all about you!” Again, it may feel awkward, but prioritizing your needs is worth it.
- Choose what you are going to wear a week ahead of time.
Focus on what you like and what is most comfortable. Picking something out that morning or adjusting your clothes all day only adds to the overall stress of the day.
- Think about how you will bring your stress level down after the gathering ends.
Your body may need to transition from fight-or-flight mode to “I’m safe” mode. Debrief with friends, watch a movie, play video games, take a bath, journal, or just go to bed.
- Decide ahead of time how you are going to eat and exercise the day(s) after Thanksgiving.
Be on the lookout for decisions to stray from your meal plan in reaction to what you ate (unless your dietitian says otherwise). Compensating sets up a harmful precedent for anyone struggling with disordered eating. Believing that one day of “overdoing” it with food is something that must be compensated for is giving food WAY too much power. One day is nothing. Stay the course.
- Similarly, be aware of “preparing” for Thanksgiving by eating less or exercising more in the days and weeks leading up to it.
It is usually best to stay on your meal plan or exercise routine.
Use these strategies as a starting point. Some will apply, and some won’t. Adapt them and add to them as needed to fit your specific Thanksgiving scenario. The goal is not just for you to survive Thanksgiving, but to feel good about how you did it.