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Why Christmas is so difficult if you have an eating disorder

In this instructive op-ed, Sophia Hatzis explains the troubles faced by those who suffer from disordered eating behaviours and patterns, as well as other related mental health ailments.

It's almost Christmas time. The most wonderful time of the year for most. Especially if you're in Australia. It means delicious food, good company and some well-earned rest and relaxation. 

But Christmas can be a difficult time for some people. Particularly people who have suffered from alcoholism or eating disorders.

It brought back some memories for me. The reminder that over the past six years since I was diagnosed with anorexia, Christmas was a period of time that initiated a lot of anxiety and distress. It's a time when food (and alcohol) is the focus of everyone's attention. There will be plates upon plates of food. Eating and grazing happening all day.

I don't feel that paralysing anxiety now because I'm so far into my recovery. In fact, I'm looking forward to eating delicious food without any guilt or shame. But that wasn't always the case. For years, I dreaded the arrival of Christmas and all the stupid things people would say. For years, I dreaded Christmas dinner, because I knew there would be copious amounts of foods packed with ingredients I couldn't control. And then there was the guilt after the meal – analysing, stressing. Christmas just wasn't fun.

I am fortunate that this year, after working hard for a year and a half on recovery, that those feelings have almost entirely vanished. That's liberating. But that isn't the case for everyone. There will be hundreds of people across Australia sitting down to Christmas lunch and dreading every second of it, feeling sick with anxiety and distress, wishing that it would all just be over and wanting to escape it.

There will be hundreds of families across the country who have to navigate Christmas with family members or friends who have an eating disorder, which is another challenge all together. Families who are stepping on egg shells, terrified that there's going to be a full-on mental health crisis at the dinner table.

It isn't easy for many families. It wasn't easy for mine for a long time. So, here are some tips for navigating the Christmas period.

Avoid emotional language surrounding foods

We're all guilty of linking food to feelings, but this is particularly heightened at Christmas time. Because it's a period of time that is framed as a "day of indulgence", the language we use around Christmas dishes can be unnecessarily negative. Stay away from calling food "dirty" or "bad". 

Here are some phrases that should be avoided:

•    "This pudding is so unhealthy/fatty/bad."
•    "This can't be good for you."
•    "I wonder how many kms I'd have to run to burn THIS off."
•    "This has so many calories."
•    "Calories don't count at Christmas."

Avoid speaking about your body in a negative way

Hearing people scrutinise and degrade their bodies can be triggering at the best of times, and this is particularly heightened at Christmas time when people are conditioned to believe they've grossly overindulged before they've even sit down to dinner. Stay away from commenting on your body. 

Here are some examples of what not to say:

•    "I feel so fat. I'm not eating for days now."
•    "I'm not eating ever again."
•    "There goes the summer bod."
•    "I'm starting my diet tomorrow."
•    "I'm such a whale."

If you feel the conversation steering in this direction, move it on to something else. Like, "Hey, did you see what happened at the cricket?" or "Any plans for the new year?"

Avoid commenting on what other people are eating or not eating

What people are eating or not eating is, unsurprisingly, none of your business, yet people seem to feel it's cool to comment on your food choices at Christmas time. No, no, no, no. 

Here are some phrases you should avoid:

•    "My god, that's a lot of pudding you're having."
•    "You must be so hungry, you've eaten heaps!"
•    "Do you want some more? Why not? It's Christmas, come on!"
•    "You've hardly eaten anything! Have some of this."

Just let people be. Of course, if you notice someone not eating anything at all, then that needs to be addressed. But making a fuss at the dinner table is not the place for it.

Have a serve-yourself type of arrangement

There is pretty much nothing worse, if you're struggling with eating problems, than someone piling things onto your plate.

A solution to this problem may be having the dishes on a separate table, like a buffet, where each person can go and serve themselves and feel more comfortable. It also means you don't have to feel obliged to try Aunty Jane's rocket and blue cheese salad (yuck.)

Engage people in conversations not related to food

Often, if you're suffering from an eating disorder, food will be at the forefront of your mind. You might be fine one moment but then completely panic the next when you're given the chance to over-analyse the food and your food choices.

This can be a very difficult time of year for people with eating disorders and alcohol problems.

If you notice, on daytime television and in magazines, the emphasis after Christmas will be on shedding weight/detoxing and all of that irrelevant and toxic BS.

Yes, at Christmas people like to eat and there's nothing wrong with that. Our bodies are good at processing food (that's part of its job). So please, enjoy the festive season, but also be mindful that some people may be suffering and keep these tips in mind.

Sophia Hatzis is an online content producer at Macquarie Media, as well as a law and communications student at UTS. This blog first appeared on her website in 2016. 

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