Holidays a struggle for those with eating disorders

What signs should friends and family look for?
By: Sena Christian, Staff Reporter
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For more information about the Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program center in Roseville, call (916) 574-1000 or visit

Food is a central part of holiday celebrations and, as such, can be a source of suffering for those struggling with an eating disorder.

'"Even though it’s supposed to be this joyous time with family and friends, because of the stress associated with the holiday season and because we use food as part of the celebration, it can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for patients,” said Jennifer Lombardi, executive director of Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program in Roseville.

The Press Tribune sat down with Lombardi to find out why eating disorders tend to increase during the holidays, and what people should do if they suspect a loved one of experiencing this illness.

Do you see more of a certain type of eating disorder during the holidays?

One of the things we know through research is people at risk (for an eating disorder) tend to have a harder time with change. It doesn’t matter if it’s good change or bad change. … Change is change.

Most people don’t like change, conflict or stress. But for someone with an eating disorder, their tolerance is like an earthquake on the Richter scale — what rattles an average person at a 5.0 sometimes feels like a 9.5 and there are lots of aftershocks. Holidays naturally stir a lot of that up.

People are usually shocked to discover the majority of our patients are adults (in their) 30s, 40s and 50s. Oftentimes, they’ve been able to fly under the radar in terms of the severity of their illness. They’ve been able to be very high-functioning (but) the stress of the holidays can be the tipping point. It’s exhausting having an eating disorder, so adding more stress and anxiety on someone who’s already stressed is extremely difficult.

What should friends and family look for?

A dramatic weight loss or gain, or any significant changes in behaviors or attitudes around food. It could be anything from they suddenly avoid food situations, they disappear to the bathroom immediately after the meal, they eat in secret. … Another red flag is someone who does a lot of cooking, preparing, baking for everyone else, but doesn’t necessarily partake.

(Some) people have an exercise compulsion as part of their eating disorder. Notice if a loved one is rigid in their exercise routine, tends to push themselves to the extreme and work out when they’re ill or injured.

If a friend or family member notices red flags, what should they do?

One of the most important things they should do is research treatment options and the second thing would be to write down specifically and very succinctly what they’re concerned about. ‘No. 1 I’m concerned because you’ve lost a significant amount of weight in a short time. No. 2 I found laxatives in your purse.’ Speak from firsthand experience and say, ‘I’m concerned because’ and fill in the blank with every point outlined in the list of concerns.

Then set aside private time to talk to the person. Unlike shows on TV where people do interventions and there are 10 people in the room, a group approach doesn’t go over so well with people with eating disorders.

They may or may not get a positive response. It’s important to be prepared for that. Most people that struggle are scared. … At the end of that conversation, encourage that person to get an assessment with a professional.

What should people avoid doing?

(Avoid) getting into a debate about numbers. Avoid getting into a conversation about appropriate ways to diet, appropriate ways to exercise or not exercise. It’s important to focus on the behaviors you’re concerned about and encourage an assessment.