Celebrating the Holidays While Living with an Eating Disorder

By Alexa Rivera

Eating Disorders & the Holiday Season 

The holiday season is when most people begin to relax and spend time with their loved ones. Even though the holiday season can be stressful for everyone, with last-minute purchases, travel or unpredictable weather, for those recovering from an eating disorder the holiday season can be riddled with additional stressors and obstacles. You might experience conflicting feelings, joy and excitement for festivities, but also anxiety about weight gain, fear foods and New Year resolutions. Here are four ways to prepare for the holidays and make the season brighter. 

Give Yourself Some Grace 

While the holidays can be a wonderful time to connect and bond with loved ones, they often bring stress with them. It can be very easy to fall into the trap of wanting to have the perfect holiday – whether that means being a good host, doing everything on your to-do list, picking out the right gifts or even making sure your eating disorder doesn’t “ruin” the holiday. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting these things, when you become too rigid in your expectations, it can become exhausting and end up taking the joy out of the holidays.

Practicing self-compassion is a vital skill for recovery. It’s important to realign your expectations as things change and remind yourself that it’s okay to be frustrated, overwhelmed or to find recovery difficult during this time. It’s okay to take a break or scale back your ideas. You might have to do things differently than you imagined or things may not be going as expected and that’s alright. 

Practice Setting Boundaries 

It’s no secret that a lot of people eat more during the holidays. As a consequence, it’s also common for people to discuss winter weight gain, dieting and exercise over the dinner table. You might also be around people you don’t usually see, who may or may not be aware of your recovery journey and ask questions or make comments about your weight or appearance.  

Let the host know beforehand what questions or comments you’d like to avoid or mention it as it comes up. Be direct and clear about what types of questions or comments are inappropriate. If your boundaries are ignored, reinforce your boundaries by respectfully removing yourself from the conversation.  

Remember, you control when and how you eat, what types of conversations you’re willing to have and how you’ll respond to questions or comments about your appearance or decisions. Setting clear boundaries helps you maintain your recovery and emotional wellbeing. 

Plan for Parties 

The convenient part about holidays is that they happen at around the same time every year, which means you can start preparing in advance. You can decide which events or what type of events you will or won’t attend in advance. You can also ask people to join you as a support person during parties or potlucks. They can be a grounding presence if you find yourself struggling or need to take a moment away from the party. Here are some ideas for preparing for parties: 

  • If you rely on a meal plan and feel anxious, it might be better to stick to your meal plan rather than start experimenting 
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself and others, if you think an event or party will be too overwhelming, let the hosts know beforehand that you might not stay long, arrive after dinner or leave early 

Partying with Alcohol 

Alcohol can sometimes be a component of holiday parties, particularly for New Years Eve parties. Many house parties, clubs and bars emphasize drinking alcohol for New Years Eve, which can lead to overdrinking and may trigger disordered eating behaviors. Depending on where you are in your recovery, it might be better to try to abstain or drink in moderation. 

For those early in their recovery or who were recently hospitalized for an eating disorder, it’s important to discuss alcohol consumption with your treatment team. It’s often recommended that alcohol be avoided because in addition to triggering disordered eating, it can also exacerbate medical complications or psychiatric symptoms or interact with medication. 

For those further in eating disorder recovery, you may want to start practicing drinking alcohol in moderation. You can set a drink limit, space out drinks or refrain from hard alcohol and share this with your group so they can hold you accountable. 

If you struggle with substance use disorder, particularly alcohol use disorder, it’s also recommended that events like these are avoided. If you think drinking in moderation will be difficult, we encourage you to speak to your treatment team to address any underlying substance use disorders. 

Reframe Food 

It’s also important to put yourself in the right mindset as you enter the holiday season. The holidays are filled with a lot of different fear foods, like cookies, chocolates and cakes. Remember that every food provides some form of nutrition, and it’s okay to eat holiday sweets and feel satisfied after eating. There are no “bad” foods, just different foods that meet different needs. 

Many holiday foods have cultural significance and are a way to connect with your ethnic or religious group. There is nothing bad about celebrating your culture with food – no matter how much or little you participate. Remember that participating less in the food aspects of your culture does not undermine your experience or relationship with your religion or ethnicity. 

Enjoy Non-Food Holiday Fun 

While a lot of holidays feature food as a central component, you can still find ways to join the festivities without it being entirely centered around food. Between decorating, music, shopping and skating, there is more than enough to do! 

Holiday Decorating 

Holiday decorating rings in the start of the holiday season, but it can also be a great change of pace. As the days get shorter and darker, it can be tempting to stay inside, not do much or retreat into yourself. Decorating for the holidays gives you something to do that gets you up and going. It can also be a time to reflect on your growth, what you value and are thankful for or take a moment to go down memory lane as you put up pictures and decorations from holidays past.  

Holiday Music 

Most of the winter holidays don’t just feature food, but beautiful music too. Play some holiday tunes to get you in the mood, maybe in the background as you clean, get ready for the day or in the car as you drive. If you want to share the joy of music with others, you can also consider joining a caroling group. 

Gift Wrapping 

If you plan on gift-giving this holiday season, you can try to be extra creative this year by making it a project and finding creative ways to package and wrap gifts for your loved ones. You can go over the top with coordinated wrapping paper, bows, labels and other odds and ends or you can take a more DIY approach by drawing your own designs on the wrapping paper or only using recycled paper.  

Holiday Crafting 

Instead of baking cookies, you can try holiday crafting. You can make your own decorations or make your own artwork, knitwear, soap or candles to give away as gifts. Giving someone something you made yourself is a labor of love and shows that you’re grateful for and appreciate the person you give it to. Here are some ideas to get the creative juices flowing:

  • Knit or crochet a scarf, hat or potholder 

  • Paint or draw winter-themed art 

  • Pour your own soap 

  • Make your own wreath 

  • Pour your own candles or paint candles 

  • Make snowmen out of old shirts or socks 

  • Make a garland of dried fruit, popcorn or paper loops 

Holiday Markets 

If you don’t know what to get someone, going out to a local holiday market might be just the thing you need. Holiday markets feature local makers and businesses, with handmade goods and items you probably wouldn’t be able to find in big box stores. Holiday markets can be a slow-paced way to get out and have some fun without having to worry about food. 

Ice Skating & Winter Sports 

Ice skating can be a fun way to enjoy the winter weather and socialize without having to worry about food. If you’ve never ice skated before, this season is the perfect time to learn and pick up a new skill – don’t worry, tons of other people at the rink are beginners too! If you're not interested in ice skating, sports like snowboarding, skiing, hockey and snowmobiling might be more your speed. 

Religious Services 

Religious communities can be a great source of support and comfort, and maybe religion has played an important role in your recovery. If you’re religious, this is the perfect time to connect with your religion by attending community events, going to religious services, praying and/or meditating or reading scripture.   


There are many people who struggle with illness, homelessness, food insecurity or material insecurity during the holidays. Volunteering can be a rewarding way to keep yourself busy and make a difference in your local community. While every organization is different, consider some of the ways you may be asked to help those in need: 

  • Organize or assist with a food, clothing or toy drive 
  • Volunteer to transport or distribute food or clothing 
  • Volunteer to assemble meal packs or care kits 
  • Make holiday cards  
  • Wrap gifts 

Ask For Help If You Need It 

Many people suffering from an eating disorder isolate themselves from others, which can make the holidays lonely. Remember, even if your biological family is estranged, there are still people who love you, want to support you and want to see you. You also have a treatment team behind you that wants to be there to help you when you struggle and cheer you on when you succeed. 

Make sure to keep up with any therapy sessions, support groups or dietician appointments during this time to maintain your recovery. Even though the holidays can be very busy, there is no better gift to yourself than the gift of recovery — nothing is more important than your health.  

If you find that you’re having an especially hard time this season, it might be best to re-enter treatment, especially if you’re experiencing severe medical complications. It’s vital that you receive care as quickly as possible, and you should never delay care until after the holidays. While the decision to enter re-enter treatment is difficult and stressful, it is one of the most important decisions you can make. Entering treatment now makes celebrating the many holidays to come possible. While it might seem like inpatient care will ruin the holidays, there are ways you can bring the holiday cheer with you. 

ACUTE Earns Prestigious Center of Excellence Designation from Anthem
In 2018, the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition at Denver Health was honored by Anthem Health as a Center of Excellence for Medical Treatment of Severe and Extreme Eating Disorders. ACUTE is the first medical unit ever to achieve this designation in the field of eating disorders. It comes after a rigorous review process.

Center of Excellence Logo