UK HealthCare

Helping adolescents who struggle with eating disorders during the holidays

holiday dinner table
Photo credit: SeventyFour, iStock / Getty Images Plus.

The University of Kentucky Public Relations and Strategic Communications Office provides a weekly health column available for use and reprint by news media. This week's column is by UK HealthCare pediatric psychologist Alissa Briggs, Ph.D., and adolescent medicine licensed clinical social worker Kari Gerth.

LEXINGTON, KY. (Dec. 5, 2022) — As we move into holiday season, let’s take time to be grateful for the light we have in our lives and be mindful that we don’t ruin the light of others. Holidays are portrayed as a joyous time when friends and family gather. 

However, adolescents struggling with eating disorders can find this time particularly stressful. We open the season with Thanksgiving, a meal where we are encouraged to eat to the point of discomfort. Then, we may try to compensate for that by running a 5K the morning of Thanksgiving or wallow in our guilt until the new year, at which point we vow to go on some fad diet that will help us lose that holiday weight. Yeah — that doesn’t sound like the picture of wellness.  

Let’s make gratitude the focus of the holiday, not food.  

If you are working with an adolescent with an eating disorder, parenting an adolescent with an eating disorder, or simply wanting to create a body positive attitude in your household as you navigate the holidays, here's what should be on and off the table.  

On the table:

  • Celebration of what our bodies can do. Run that 5k because it is a fun time with family. When else do we get to be outside in the frigid weather and run around dressed up like a turkey or decorated with lights?  
  • Enjoy quality time alone, or with friends and family. Sit down and play board games. Watch movies. See the lights. Ice skate. This can even include cooking, if being involved in cooking is a quality time activity and not an effort to control ingredients. 
  • Eating mindfully and joyously. Listen and respect what the body is telling you as you eat. 
  • Unapologetically advocate for a body positive household. It’s time to stand up to the family member who makes sly comments about your body or how much you're eating. When others make a comment that is misinformed, unhelpful, or mired in our weight and diet-focused culture, speaking up and saying something like “we don’t label food as good or bad” or “comments on weight and body shape are not helpful” are great ways to address the issue.  

Off the table:

  • Framing exercise as a weight loss tool. If you run that 5K, do not comment on how it is helping compensate for the holiday treats consumed.  
  • Comments on ingredients and calories that place food into “good” or “bad” categories.  
  • Comments on anyone's weight and shape including your own.   
  • Comments on fullness/discomfort or guilt before or after eating.  
  • Using words like fat, skinny, overweight, obese and other adjectives whether you think they are positive or not. 

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

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