'The worst time of the year': Facing Christmas 'hell' with an eating disorder

071221 Table set for Christmas, Pexels
Much of the focus around Christmas is on food and drink, making the festive season stressful for some people with disordered eating. Credit: Pexels

By ITV News Content Producer Alex Binley

Christmas is imbued with the idea of eating, drinking and being merry, but for those with eating disorders, the festive period can be problematic.

Rather than the most wonderful time of the year, it's the "worst" or "hell" for those with disordered eating, as "food is metaphorically flung at you from every angle - adverts on TV, in conversation, family discussion on where you'll be going to eat and what you'll be having. It feels all-consuming".

Whether the stress and anxiety induced by the expectation to eat or the food on offer potentially being a trigger for someone with a binge-eating disorder, the charity SEED (Support and Empathy for people with Eating Disorders) says Christmas is their busiest time of the year.

The charity's manager and patron, Coronation Street and former Emmerdale actor Gemma Oaten recalls how for her, Christmas used to be "hell".

She first developed anorexia when she was 10 and lived with the illness for 13 years which she says "robbed me of a lot of precious childhood moments and teenage years".

Coronation Street actor Gemma Oaten developed anorexia when she was 10. Credit: PA

"Christmas was hell when I was in the grips of an eating disorder," the 37-year-old says.

"That's what Christmas was about... it's all about food, food, food, drink, drink, drink and of course there's a level of expectation that that's what everyone should embrace and feel like, but when you're going through an eating disorder" the festive period "is a very, very scary and anxious and difficult time.

"An eating disorder thrives off control and when you're thrown into a period of time where you don't have control over anything, your eating disorder is raging, it's angry, it's problematic."

Oaten's anorexia led to her being hospitalised, sometimes at Christmas.

She recalls going home on Christmas Eve and "even though I was relieved to be home for Christmas, I was devastated that I would have to be part of it and that's how cruel the illness is.

"I would have taken a Christmas in hospital, being on a drip, over being with my family and that is how devastating an eating disorder can be."

For a long time, she says, she resented Christmas due to the nature of her eating disorder.

For Daniel Magson who developed bulimia when he was 16 and experienced the worst stages of the illness for six years, Christmas was again the "worst time" of the year and would "ramp up" his illness.

"I would be making myself sick every day, struggling with heart palpitations and fainting."

Christmas would 'ramp up' Daniel Magson's bulimia. Credit: Daniel Magson

While he has clinically recovered from bulimia, Daniel says that even now, with its focus on "parties and eating as much as you can... four years after recovering, Christmas is still difficult".

After living with bulimia at its worst, the 29-year-old spent four years trying by himself to recover, and during that time he often felt in control of his illness, but Christmas "always brought it back as I knew I would be over-indulging... it's all about parties and centred around eating as much as you can".

"Food is metaphorically flung at you from every angle - adverts of TV, in conversation, family discussion on where you'll be going to eat on Christmas Day and what you'll be having. It feels all-consuming," says Georgie Lazzari who has been diagnosed with anorexia but does not associate herself with it, instead saying she eats with a "restrictive nature".

Food is 'thrown at you from every angle' during Christmas, says Georgie Lazzari. Credit: Georgie Lazzari

During the festive period, food can feel "all-consuming", the 30-year-old says.

"So many social occasions revolve around food.

"I went to a Christmas market with friends and as soon as we met up, they were like: 'Shall we get something to eat?'

"Even a Christmas market is now about food.

"Or swapping presents: 'Shall we get lunch?'


"No other time of the year presents so many food occasions in such a short period of time."

For others, Christmas is a planned event "so I know what to expect", says Katie (not her real name).

"It's such a big social event that there's less pressure on me."

The 28-year-old who has been diagnosed with anorexia adds that because social events are planned in advance, she can compensate for them afterwards, for example cutting out items from the meal plan she is supposed to be following.

As soon as Christmas is over, "there's lots of focus on losing weight and making up for it and this just reinforces the message in my head", she says.

For people with binge eating disorders, Christmas can be particularly triggering due to the amount of food readily available.

This year, 52-year-old Christine says she will spend Christmas Day on her own as she believes going to her brother or son's, as she has done in the past, will likely trigger her.

Phil has also experienced "compulsive over-eating" and says the festive period is "a challenging time for anyone with any addiction".

"It's very easy to get triggered and give up abstinence.

"I've been abstinent since February.

"I hoped last year to have an abstinent Christmas but I wasn't able to. I've had lots of years of relapsing, but it's part of the journey."

The 62-year-old says in the past she found Christmas "stressful" because "when I was "indulging I was zoning out and not present for the family and just thinking about how I could get more food in".

Now that she feels she has more control over her eating she says she will "enjoy myself and focus on everyone else there. It'll be a lovely time".

"If I pick up this Christmas, it won't be the end of the world and I refuse to be afraid," she says, adding that if she does "nothing is wasted".

"If I hadn't experienced relapses then I wouldn't know how to help others."

Phil has been attending Overeaters Anonymous for the past 10 years.

"When I began I couldn't imagine life without chocolate or cake, I thought I'd be really boring," she says, "but my life is incredible and constantly getting wider".

What can I do if my eating disorder is making me worried about Christmas?

Eating disorder charity Beat has advice on their website for people who have disordered eating and are worried about the festive period, and also tips for others to offer help.

Some of their suggestions include:

  • Plan Christmas dinner in advance so that you know what you will be eating, portion sizes and at what time. A trial meal in the days before Christmas may help.

  • Have some distractions during the meal, such as music or conversation which does not revolve around food.

  • Feelings of anxiety or the urge to get rid of food which has been eaten is most likely to come in the hour or so after eating. It may be helpful to leave the table after the meal is finished and have some distractions planned, for example going for a walk or playing a board game.

  • If you want to, speak to family or friends ahead of your meal to help them understand how you feel and what they can or shouldn't do that you would find useful. You might find it easier to tell a couple of people and could agree on a signal to indicate that you're feeling anxious or uncomfortable without having to alert everyone present to how you're feeling.

  • If you don't want people to make specific comments, for example that they're glad to see you eating, let them know beforehand, or ask someone to mention this on your behalf.

  • Don't feel guilty if you need to break from tradition to aide your recovery. For example if you normally get given a box of chocolates, but you're worried you might binge, let the gift buyer know in advance.

  • If you're feeling anxious and need some time alone, plan this in in advance, for example giving yourself the option of going for a walk. However, if you feel that being alone might be detrimental, for example you might binge or get rid of food you've eaten, plan a low-key activity such as watching a film.

Beat acknowledge that everyone is different so actions that some people find helpful may be stressful for others.

They advise talking about your concerns, making plans and devising strategies that work for you and the people you're spending time with.

What to do if you or someone you know needs help:

  • If you are in need of urgent help for yourself or someone else, please contact 999 or the Samaritans on 116 123 if you or someone else is in immediate danger.

  • The UK's largest eating disorder charity, Beat, offers help and advice on their website or they can be contacted by phone on:

- England: 0808 801 0677- Scotland: 0808 801 0432- Wales: 0808 801 0433- Northern Ireland: 0808 801 0433

  • Anorexia & Bulimia care offers support and advice for anyone suffering from disordered eating on its website or on their helpline at 03000 111213

  • SEED Eating Disorder Support Service offer help and advice on their website and through their advice line on 01482 718130

  • First Steps ED offers help and advice on their website

  • Overeaters Anonymous runs meetings across the UK and online for those who struggle with binge eating