The feel-good energy surrounding the holiday season has begun as we prepare to welcome Thanksgiving.

Many of us look forward to seeing family, watching football and enjoying turkey, but those living with eating disorders may find this time challenging.

Supporting a loved one with an eating disorder during a food-centered holiday like Thanksgiving may feel daunting. To help you feel more confident, here are a few pointers on how to navigate Thanksgiving as a collaborative eating disorder recovery ally.

The (Eating Disorder) Struggle is Real. 

I know this sounds snarky, but I mean it sincerely. Being expected to confront a major fear, in front of many people, would be uncomfortable for anyone.

Don’t pressure your loved one; they are doing the best that they can. If you notice that they are struggling, validate that what they’re doing is difficult. Feel free to ask privately if there’s anything you can do to ease their anxiety. They might suggest playing a game or talking about non-racy subjects like Grandma’s most recent trip to JCPenny’s.

Overeating Does NOT Equal Bingeing.

Here’s what people are likely MEANING when they say they are going to “binge” on Thanksgiving:

“I am planning on indulging in all the deliciousness that is Thanksgiving and I have every intention of deliberately and consciously eating the sweet potato casserole and enjoying every single bite of it.” After they finish, they will probably feel a little physically uncomfortable, but will feel better after laying on the couch and watching football.

This is NOT a binge as described in the DSM-5 and as experienced by those who live with Binge Eating Disorder. Those who actually binge typically are not able to enjoy the food that they eat. They may not even remember the process of eating the large amount of food that is consumed in a short period of time. Those who actually binge feel out of control and unable to stop eating. The behavior is typically done in secret and an intense amount of shame and guilt follow.

Please watch the language you use around Thanksgiving and the holidays. Instead of focusing on the amount of food that was consumed, try focusing on the wonderful tastes of the season. Model appreciating the preparation and love that went into cooking each dish.

You May be Sharing a Meal with your Loved One’s Eating Disorder.

In therapy, it is often helpful for our clients and their families to think of the eating disorder as an entity separate from who they are as a person. The eating disorder voice, or ED as many clients call it, can turn your loved one into a person that you may not recognize. Realize that your loved one may be malnourished, tired, anxious, depressed or all of the above. None of these emotions are easy or comfortable.

Try not to be offended or reactive if you realize that ED is sitting across the table from you. Gently help your loved one remain present as they work through the meal.  Let them know that you support them if they decide they need to take a short break from the table to regroup.

Stop Overthinking!

Often times, when we begin stressing about the proper or correct way to react in a stressful situation, we begin to lose ourselves in the process. Trust your instincts and be you!

Our loved ones can tell when we are walking on eggshells. If we become hyper- focused on pretending that nothing is wrong, we can unintentionally draw more attention to the idea that mealtimes are uncomfortable. Of course, this is not the message we want our loved ones to receive. We want to bring back the normalcy of eating, so why act any differently than you normally would? If you’re still nervous, it’s totally appropriate to ask your loved one what they need and how they’d like to be supported.

Help your Loved One to Remember what Thanksgiving is REALLY about

At its core, Thanksgiving is about being thankful and surrounding yourself with those you love and appreciate.  Thanksgiving isn’t about the food itself, rather it’s a celebration of the miracle that allowed our food to grow and be created. As we always tell our patients, food is medicine and it is one of life’s three necessities. It’s not about what we eat, but being thankful for what we have been given. It’s not about calories but how we are able to share what keeps us alive with the people that we care about the most.

Everyone deserves to reap the benefits of consuming the earth’s harvest. Remind your guests that we are all worthy of this meal and that we shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying it. Go around the table and ask everyone what they are thankful for. Help everyone to be mindful and embrace all the gifts that the earth gives to us.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Remember, there is always something to be thankful for.