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For Those With Eating Disorders, Holiday Meals Can Trigger Panic

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At the dinner table, Madeleine Dean, surrounded by noisy, Irish relatives, used to feel very alone.  

“Holiday meals had become a really stressful experience and nobody knew that,” she says.

Dean, now a filmmaker, kept her eating disorder a secret for years. From a very young age she struggled with anorexia nervosa. Anticipating holiday meals, she starved herself all morning before the festivities to ensure her overall caloric intake stayed low. When everyone sat down, she compared her plate with theirs. 

“Am I eating more than somebody else? Am I eating something that’s unhealthy and somebody else seems to only be eating something healthy? Are they going to judge me for what I’m eating?”

Instead of savoring mashed potatoes and gravy, she nervously pushed them around her plate. If someone commented, she was quick to respond. 


“I’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t like this food. I’m not interested in having this right now. I’m not that hungry.’”

As soon as she could, she’d excuse herself from the table and escape to her room.

Gorge Then Guilt

The holidays also create a lot of angst for Ryan Sheldon. But instead of starving himself, he’d gorge.

“I would use the holidays as an excuse for me to binge and for it to be accepted,” he says.

Sheldon is a big-and-tall model who’s recovering from a binge eating disorder. For him, the affliction meant consuming huge quantities of food with a giant chaser of guilt.  

“Family is really, really, really stressful and that would trigger me to binge,” Sheldon says. “It became like this really dark time. I began to dread the holidays.”

He remembers tortured flights from the East Coast home to Los Angeles after celebrating Hanukkah with his relatives; he ruminated over and over on offhand comments from family members about his size or eating habits.

“I couldn’t shake the sense of feeling worthless,” Sheldon remembers. “The sense of feeling lonely. The sense of feeling like I don’t deserve anything.”

Often the moment the plane touched down he’d start a new fad diet  like Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers or SlimFast to shed holiday pounds.

“I would obsess over the diet,” Sheldon says. “I would get very meticulous. Then it would go one of two ways. I would either go off the diet immediately or I would go severe on the diet. It was sick.”

Prepare Beforehand

Lauren Muhlheim, a psychologist in Los Angeles who specializes in eating disorders, says experiences like Dean’s and Sheldon’s are typical this time of year. 

“When people eat, in contexts that they don’t eat … on a daily basis, they face a higher level of difficulty,” she says.

Muhlheim advises her clients to prepare before a festive gathering by asking:

  • How are you going to go through the buffet?
  • How are you going to make decisions about what to eat?
  • Who is your support person during the meal?
  • Who can help you afterward?

If the holidays trigger a relapse, that’s okay, Muhlheim says. “The goal is to not beat oneself up when there is a lapse but to learn from it and figure out how you can get stronger in your recovery skills.”

She hopes friends and family can add extra helpings of compassion for anyone with eating disorders during the holidays. 

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, you may call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

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