Help available for coping with eating disorders over Christmas

The NHS has partnered with leading eating disorder charity, Beat, to provide guidance and support to people suffering from eating disorders, over the Christmas season.

The festive period can be particularly challenging for people dealing with eating disorders, as a big Christmas dinner and family gatherings put the focus on food and eating habits.

Beat and NHS England have gathered testimonies from young people, their parents and clinicians about how families can make the most of the Christmas period whilst helping to manage the condition.

Although eating disorders are sometimes thought of as being about someone’s physical weight, the condition affects how a person thinks about eating, resulting in a significant and damaging impact on their overall health and wellbeing.

People managing an eating disorder have told the charity that the build-up to Christmas and talk of festive feasts can trigger mental ill health, leading some to break down at family gatherings.

Parents and carers have spoken about how preparing for Christmas can be extremely difficult whilst they seek to make the holiday as enjoyable as possible whilst not making their child’s mental health worse.

The joint health service and charity guidance published today and publicly available throughout the Christmas period, outlines practical steps that family and friends can take to make life easier for people dealing with mental health problems linked to their diet.

The guidance is based on first-hand experience from parents on how they can ease the pressure on their child, and includes:

  • minimising the social expectations of people with disorders, over the holiday
  • treating meals on Christmas Day as routinely as possible.
  • serving food as a buffet rather than as sit-down meals.
  • planning ahead and thinking about how food features in your days.
  • once dinner is over, shift the focus on to other activities like playing games or watching a family film.

Associate Clinical Director for Children and Young People’s Mental Health at NHS England, Dr. Prathiba Chitsabesan, said: “Eating disorders are a struggle year-round but are particularly tough at Christmas. What should be a relaxing and rewarding time of year can end up becoming a pressured and punishing period if you or someone in your family is managing an eating disorder.

“The NHS has set up 70 new community eating disorder services this year, covering the whole of England, but helping families to manage these conditions at home, is crucial.  The first-hand experience and tips from recovered patients and their families about Christmas challenges will hopefully help to show that whilst sadly the festive season can be a trial, there are ways to put the focus back on enjoying the day.”

Beat Director of Services, Caroline Price, said “Christmas and New Year are a time where a lot of the focus is around food, eating together, there’s a lot of it around. The pressure of watching each other eat or straying from a structured eating plan can also be of concern. A simple move to changing to buffet-style serving rather than a sit down family meal could make things easier”.

“There are some things that you might be able to do as a family to make the Christmas period easier for someone with an eating disorder to deal with.

“Planning is hugely important – talk about what you are going to do on Christmas Day and the period thereafter and when and how food will be involved. Once meals are over put food away and find activities that don’t revolve around food, for example play games or find a good film to watch.”

The testimonies of families about coping with Christmas are published on the NHS England website and on the Beat website, and will be available throughout the Christmas period. The charity and the health service provide help online throughout the year, and treatment for these disorders can be accessed through local health providers.

Beat will also be operating one-to-one live chats, group chats, and message boards. The group chats – with different groups for different disorders – will run from 7.00pm to 8.30pm, with one for families from 6.00pm to 7.00pm.

Over Christmas, Beat will be offering help to those with eating disorders and their families – including on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day.

The helpline is open 3.00pm to 10.00pm every day, and from 6.00pm to 10.00pm on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.