Making it Through the Jewish Holidays with an Eating Disorder
How to get through the myriad of food issues holidays present while suffering from an eating disorder, disordered eating, or while supporting loved ones with eating struggles.
In the fall, the Jewish months of Elul and Tishrei begin, and so begin the holiday preparations that wreak havoc on women across the world. Like many religions, Judaism heavily revolves around food. Jewish traditions, customs, and culture involve many types of foods besides the basic challah and matzah ball soup we are known for having every week.
Jewish women (and also men) send themselves into a frenzy preparing for the slew of holidays coming up. Unlike other religions, Jews have meals back to back, sometimes for 3 days in a row, and much of the cooking is done in advance.
And this is how the cycle begins: shopping, cooking, eating, repeat. All throughout, a steady stream of stress and pressure running through their minds, pressuring women to be perfect.
You need to have the perfect menu.
You need to have a beautiful table.
You should lose weight by then.
Everyone needs new clothes.
You need to keep up at work.
And on the list goes.
Now, let’s talk about eating disorders.
In the Jewish community, this is a pretty taboo topic, but it needn’t be. There is a common myth that eating disorders are more prevalent in the Jewish community than in the general public. This is unproven, but regardless of research, one thing is clear: there are many, many individuals in the community suffering and they need to be supported, not treated like a problem to be kept quiet about.
The yomim tovim, or the Jewish holidays, can be a beautiful time, symbolizing hope, happiness, faith, and more, but for many people, they provide a time to fall deeper into the depression or anxiety that they already find themselves in.
For eating disorders, the holidays pose a set of unique struggles. Understandably, the excess amounts of caloric food available over the holidays can be a major trigger for people suffering from eating disorders across the board, whether of the restrictive or overeating nature. Less obvious in nature, it may be hard for individuals to participate in meals with family and friends for various reasons, especially if they have been in higher levels of care and have trouble eating regular meals. Transitioning back to eating at home is incredibly difficult and throwing holidays into the mix can create feelings of intense fear, instability, and discomfort.
A key aspect of eating disorders treatment is support, whether it is in therapy, supported meals, or group therapy. For individuals who are stable enough to go home for the holidays (for religious individuals who are unsure, a rabbi should absolutely be consulted), losing this support for a few days can be disconcerting.
So how do we support our loved ones?
Or if we are suffering, how do we deal with this?
1. No diet talk. And do not comment on others’ eating.
In Jewish homes, food is a very popular topic, and I understand how hard it can be to change the habit, but this is vital. For things to change, we need to make a shift.
When we sit down to eat a lavish meal filled with countless foods available to us, what is our first reaction? Do we sigh and say, “I need to go on a diet the day after the holidays. And I’m renewing my Equinox membership- I can’t believe I’m eating all of this.” Or do we focus on the gratitude that we are supposed to have as Jews and say, “Wow. Someone spent a LOT of time preparing this for me. And thank G-d we have enough money to do this. I live in a country where I’m not persecuted for being a religious Jew and can take work off without a problem. Yes, they might irritate me, but I have family to spend the holidays with.”
In terms of what other people are eating: they are perfectly aware of what they are eating and do not need a running commentary from others. Unless your friend, child, mother or sister explicitly asks you to make sure he/she is eating enough (or eating less), keep your eyes on your own plate, and keep your comments to yourself.
2. DO talk about food- with a nutritionist.
If possible, schedule a meeting before the holiday begins with a nutritionist to go over the holiday menu. A trained professional can be incredibly helpful in helping you find ways to cope with foods that may be triggering, what to focus on eating, and how to navigate all of the food issues that may come up. If the issues coming up are deeper, it may be helpful to involve your therapist as well.
3. Avoid commenting on anyone’s appearance, especially their weight.
Yes, I know that when someone says, “Wow, you look great!”, they have the best intentions. But someone suffering from an eating disorder or body dysmorphia is not going to hear that.
And while this may seem obvious, please, please stop saying, “Wow, you’re so thin! What’s your secret?” I’ll tell you a secret: This will accomplish two things. This will make someone with anorectic tendencies go deeper into her restricting because it validates her, and number two: any young girls or women (or older, for that matter) who hear this will internalize the message that, skinny=good. If I’m skinny, they’ll love me. And this is the biggest disservice you can do for young women and girls.
If there’s one thing you can do to prevent eating disorders, it’s to take the focus and attention off of being thin and start praising the things in your daughters/sisters/mothers/friends that matter.
Show them that there are more important things than their weight.
4. Find a confidante, but if you are the supporter, don’t force someone to talk.
Social support is vital in treating most psychological ailments, eating disorders included. Many Orthodox Jews don’t use phones or internet over the Sabbath or holidays, which may pose a challenge in terms of reaching out for support (again, if need be, a rabbi should be consulted in certain situations). In general, however, it would be wise to plan before the holiday to have someone on hand- a close friend or relative- whom you feel comfortable talking to if you find yourself struggling. Even someone who can just spend time with you, take a walk, or hold your hand if you aren’t up for talking. Each person, regardless of whether or not she has an eating disorder, should make it a point to get to know herself and what works for her. If you don’t feel like talking, that’s okay, but it can be good to have someone non-judgmental around who you can tell, “I’m really struggling right now. I don’t want to talk about it, but please just know that I’m having a hard time and be here for me”.
5. Remove yourself from the situation.
Sometimes the situation can be too much to handle and the best thing to do is to remove yourself for a bit. Do not confuse this with avoiding the situation. Avoiding the situation will not help matters, but sometimes, taking a walk and getting away from the stress can give you the clarity and the strength you need to refocus and get through the day.
As the one supporting someone with an eating disorder, if you see that your child or loved one is struggling, don’t play guessing games trying to anticipate what’s best, just ask them what they need. If they need space, then give that to them.
The holidays are a time to focus on our spiritual growth, not on how fit, beautiful or wealthy we are. Each Jewish holiday has incredibly deep themes and meanings beneath it. It’s a time we ask G-d for a good year and try to attain a closeness to Him. The food is a means to create time with our families and reconnect with those we love, not meant to be an added stress or social competition. It will be much easier to take the focus off of eating and feel joy during this time when we focus on connecting to G-d, to others, and to ourselves.
Elizabeth Carmen is a psychotherapist at Metro Behavioral Health Associates, in Manhattan and Scarsdale, New York. She earned her Master’s degree in Psychological Counseling from Columbia University and focuses heavily on the treatment of eating disorders, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders. She has spent many years collaborating with various eating disorder organizations such as I.A.E.D.P. and N.E.D.A. to sharpen her clinical skills in this specialty. Elizabeth utilizes many therapeutic techniques including Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to help explore the inevitable relationship between thoughts, feelings and ultimately maladaptive behaviors. The goal is to find alternate and ultimately safer coping strategies and to create new habits and reflexes. Elizabeth treats the full spectrum of disordered eating behaviors including those that are restrictive, bulimic and/or overeating in nature.