How to Recognize an Eating Disorder During the Holidays

November 28, 2022

The holidays are all about celebrating with loved ones. But, as they approach, anyone can get swept up in the stressors of the season. From hosting extended family to shopping for the perfect gift, this time of year is as riddled with emotional intensity as it is with goodwill and joy. But for someone struggling with an eating disorder, the holidays bring even more challenges. If you are feeling concerned about a loved one, keep an eye out for some of the common signs of eating disorders during the upcoming holidays.


Understanding the Challenge of the Holidays


Supporting a loved one with an eating disorder takes empathy. So, before we get into the specific warning signs of different eating disorders, let’s take a moment to understand the particular challenges of the holidays. Holidays center around food and people, and this hyper-focus on meals and social gatherings can be quite triggering. 

A 2015 study found that over 60% of people experience elevated stress levels during the holidays. The main factors that have folks losing their cool? Finances, family dynamics, and food. Concerns about food are already a highlight of the season. For those with eating disorders, this focus may feel extra intense.

Holiday events not only center around food, but these gatherings come full of food-based small talk. It’s common to hear comments about diet plans, jokes about overeating, and health-related resolutions. These comments can be directed toward a person, too. Even in a positive light, innocent comments on someone’s physical appearance, like a weight change, can be harmful. They might reinforce or resurface maladaptive behaviors. The holidays can be some of the most difficult times of the year for people suffering from an eating disorder.


Educate Yourself


Before we get into some of the typical warning signs, take a moment to understand a bit more about eating disorders. When you witness a loved one struggling, it can be tempting to try to “fix” them. Having empathy for their experience also shows them that you really care about what they are going through. To help someone with an eating disorder, it’s imperative to have some background.

An eating disorder is an illness that affects someone’s relationship to food. Depending on the specific condition, this can manifest as restricting food intake (Anorexia Nervosa), bingeing and purging (Bulimia Nervosa), or compulsive overeating (binge eating disorder). Eating disorders can also show up as Avoident/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) and Other Specific Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED). You can learn more about the types of eating disorders, their symptoms, and treatments here.

people holding hands


Signs of an Eating Disorder


Looking for signs of an eating disorder around the holidays can be tricky. Independently, some of these behaviors might not be indicative of disordered eating. It’s the intent behind the behavior change that matters. Additionally, witnessing multiple behavior shifts or noticing physical symptoms of eating disorders can be a sign that your loved one needs support. Keep in mind that it’s not your job to police any of these behaviors. Trying to control how someone with an eating disorder acts can add further shame and guilt. But, noticing these signs of an eating disorder could help save their life.


Concern About Weight and Body Image

Symptoms of eating disorders often include a distorted body image and weight fluctuations. This could look like someone obsessing over the scale or expressing critiques of their body. However, it likely won’t be so obvious. Because of the impact that shame has on eating disorders, your loved one may be secretive about their preoccupation with weight. Other symptoms of eating disorders may include concern about body shape along with an obsession with “healthy eating” and diets.

While eating disorders can present with weight fluctuations, it’s far from the rule. Weight and body size are not predictors of an eating disorder. People of any weight can suffer from disordered eating. If you’re feeling concerned for a loved one, it’s more important to look for shifts in behavior, not just changes in body shape or weight loss.


Excessive Exercise


Another possible sign of an eating disorder is excessive exercise. Often, people with eating disorders use exercise as a means of purging. They might try to work out multiple times each day or feel anxiety if they are not able to exercise. If your loved one is motivated to work out in response to the food they’ve eaten, this may be a sign of an unhealthy relationship to exercise.


Food Control


Eating disorders partially stem from a desire for control and perfectionism. While control over their body and weight may be harder to spot, someone suffering from an eating disorder may adopt controlling eating habits. They may assign moral value to food, labeling some as “good” or “safe” and others as “bad.”

Unfortunately, our culture exacerbates this sentiment that holiday foods are “unhealthy.” Take the morality out of holiday meals by just nourishing your body without passing judgment on certain dishes.

Someone with an eating disorder may also develop ritualistic eating patterns, like cutting food into tiny pieces or arranging it on a plate. Hiding food is another common behavior across eating disorders. They may feel that certain foods are scarce or that they need to hide the “bad” foods. In the same vein, last-minute plan changes might cause someone with an eating disorder to feel stressed or upset. 


Behavior Shifts Around Mealtimes

People suffering from eating disorders may experience a variety of behavioral changes. In general, they may become more withdrawn and isolated from friends and family. Particularly around meals, you might notice they act differently. In some cases, they might be intensely invested in preparing the food but not interested in eating it. At festive potlucks or holiday dinner parties, they might disappear when the food is served because they do not feel comfortable eating in front of others.


Mood and Energy Shifts


Irregular shifts in mood and energy can also be a sign of an eating disorder. Eating disorders often co-occur with other forms of mental illness including anxiety and depression. Additionally, because many people with eating disorders are undernourished or malnourished, they may experience dramatic shifts in mood, changing energy levels, and other cognitive challenges, like difficulty focusing. 

People with eating disorders often have low self-esteem and a poor body image. They might wear baggy clothing to avoid the shame they feel about their bodies. They may also try to isolate themselves and avoid spending time with friends and family members. Their energy levels tend to go toward extremes. Either they will seem lethargic and down or they will overcompensate with extra energy, acting capable of anything.

couple walking in snow


Observe and Support, Don’t Diagnose


All of these signs can be intensified during the holidays. If you are concerned that your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, your observations and support might be integral to their recovery. However, only a medical professional can diagnose someone with a specific health condition. You can offer them love, express your concern, and encourage them to get professional support.


The holidays are an emotionally intense time. While it may be an opportunity to spot signs of disordered eating in a loved one, keep in mind that they are likely experiencing heightened stress. Approaching the situation with grace, care, and understanding will help show them that you are on their team to recovery.


Find Professional Support


At the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, we offer support and guidance along every step on the journey to eating disorder recovery. Explore treatment options and providers in your area using our extensive database, or you can call our helpline to speak with a licensed therapist. They can offer you further guidance and referrals to all levels of eating disorder treatment. Eating disorders can be incredibly challenging; know that you’re not alone, recovery is possible, and there’s a compassionate community here to support you.