How Binge Eaters Cope With Holiday Excess

Photographed by Anna Jay
Warning: This article contains descriptions of an eating disorder, which some readers might find upsetting
“I eat until I’m so full it hurts,” I told my therapist who, as therapists are meant to do, nodded understandingly. “I lie in bed with my eyes closed until it stops hurting, then as soon as it stops, I eat more until it hurts again.” Her response was sympathetic but firm: “Does that sound healthy to you?” Although I had always known I had an unhealthy relationship with food, I never considered my overeating to be a problem. In a culture of comfort eating, binge eating never felt like it could be as serious as the times I starved myself. 
Flitting between never eating and eating until it physically pains me feels reminiscent of the yo-yo dieting I watched many women undertake in my life as a child. Whether this contributed to my issues I can’t tell you, but rewarding yourself with a cake for “being good” and punishing yourself for having too many Slimming World “syns” (how they calculate food’s supposed “health” value, a term I learned from my mother’s decades-long subscription to the diet service) when you gain weight feels awfully similar to BED (binge eating disorder).
This language of "saints and sinners" is everywhere when it comes to food. It's a central pillar of the diet industrial complex. Attributing these angelic and demonic qualities to food and our consumption of it, however, is usually thrown out of the window during the festive season. Holiday aisles are filled with all your favourite snacks — plus Christmas flavoured versions. Our family homes overflow with Pringles cans and After Eights. Feasting is an integral part of the celebrations and the themes of indulgence and excess are pushed upon us from every angle. When you are struggling with an eating disorder or like in my case, general disordered eating, this can be catastrophic for your mental health. 
Aimee, a 23-year-old who has suffered from BED for over 10 years, feels similarly. She explains: “My house is always full to the brim with food over the holiday period. Overeating is encouraged and having access to so much food all the time can be triggering. It makes it hard to control myself and hide binges from family when I am home.”

Try planning ahead wherever you can, and talking it through with the people you are with at Christmas to help make it feel less daunting.

Rebecca Willgress, BEAT
“I think Christmas somewhat normalizes my tendencies and I feel less guilt about binge eating because it’s the one time of year where everyone is ‘overindulging’ and their ‘regular’ eating habits are thrown out of the window,” Aimee argues. “But normalizing these traits is not always a good thing and feeling less shame over my eating disorder — that is a very real condition and affects me all year round — does not improve my situation.”
Kirsty, a 34-year-old who has had self-diagnosed BED her “whole life”, agrees with Aimee that the festive period is the most triggering time of year. “Themes of excess around the Christmas period exacerbate my binge eating tendencies. For me it is tied in with how I feel during the festive period and my feelings in turn affect my eating habits.” She continues: “Feeling low triggers me to comfort eat, and as the season is all about allowing yourself the freedom to eat what you normally wouldn’t, it’s all too tempting to binge eat and then make yourself promises of a new start in the new year.”
As Kirsty puts it, not only do the excesses of the season go hand in hand with overindulging and overeating, but the “new year, new me” mantra trotted out by our mates, our mothers and gym membership campaigns feels like a free pass to do and eat whatever and however we want for the month of December — even if these approaches to food are harmful. The promise to “do better” in the future helps to suppress guilty feelings in the present for acts of disordered eating. 
Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, gave me the following advice when I asked them what anyone struggling over the holidays should do. “Try planning ahead wherever you can, and talking it through with the people you are with at Christmas to help make it feel less daunting. Having a plan of what foods will be in the house and where they'll be might be helpful,” says Beat's head of communications, Rebecca Willgress. “Also try to minimize exposure from food adverts and supermarket aisles by using an ad blocker online, or asking someone else to do the shopping.”

In a season filled with food and food talk, seeing any slip-ups as a symptom of your condition — and not a sign of failure — is imperative to survival.

While talking things through is a solid piece of advice for any kind of mental health issue, this advice relies on the assumption that the listener will understand the BED struggle. Kirsty and Aimee confided that their issues with bingeing – and discussing their disorder with others – are heightened by a lack of education on the condition, as well as a stigma surrounding overeating. 
Kirsty feels that BED is seen as a combination of “weakness, immaturity and greed.” She adds: “All of these things have an impact on a person's self-worth and how they’re seen by others, leading to the shame that causes them to be reluctant to talk about their experience.”
It’s worth remembering that mental illness favours the prepared, and even if you are operating solo while coping with BED, planning ahead is advised by Beat. “You may want to make a meal plan for Christmas Day as restricting food could lead to a binge," says Rebecca. “Try organizing distractions for after the meal — as this is when you’re most likely to feel the urge to binge — such as a family walk, playing board games, or watching a funny film together.”
In a season filled with food and food talk, seeing any slip-ups as a symptom of your condition — and not a sign of failure — is imperative to survival. While the new year doesn’t necessarily mean a new you, waiting for a calmer time to tackle your BED is not just understandable but sensible. In the meantime, try to survive with the above advice and accept any binges as a side effect of the stressful season and not as a sign of personal failure. It’s not a "sin" to struggle and you are not alone.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre hotline at 1-866-633-4220.

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