National Eating Disorders Association

Incorporating Intuitive Eating Into Thanksgiving Festivities

Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CDN, CEDRD and Dana Fierstein, RD, CDN

Can we really be thankful and present on Thanksgiving? When someone is struggling with, or recovering from, an eating disorder, this may be a challenging task. Thanksgiving, as its name suggests, is a time to look around and see all that we are grateful for. Often, we are too consumed by the presence of food, the fear of eating, and the focus on our bodies to appreciate anything.  

Much torment, time, and energy may go into wishing that we didn’t have to attend. Obsession, anxiety, and dread dominate a slew of food and eating negotiations, leaving us with feelings of regret and self-loathing, which doesn’t really orchestrate feelings of thankfulness. 

Maybe this year can be different, though; maybe this year, we can take a few steps toward being present and participating in a more mindful way. Is it possible to spend less time wishing you didn’t have to go? Can you spend less energy obsessing about how to compensate for the food that we might eat?

It is culturally acceptable to sit down for the Thanksgiving Day meal with every intention of eating for pleasure and beyond what we are hungry for; it’s practically what the whole country does. However, the visual overwhelm of the table with mounds of food and the constant talk about the meal and how much everyone is eating can really send someone with an eating disorder or who is recovering into a tailspin of eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors. Just watching everyone else fill their plates can be very anxiety-producing and/or triggering.

A goal this year may be to get through this holiday in a more peaceful way. You may not have been able to do this yet, but maybe this year can be different from years past. Maybe you can try something new by incorporating some mindful and intuitive eating skills. This can be the year to have a kinder experience of Thanksgiving, so you can make a new memory for years to come. 

To make this year a forward one, it is important to be mindful before you even make it to “the meal.” As always, stay attuned to what’s good for you, and what fills your wants and needs. Don’t compare yourself to those around you. Make sure you follow your typical meal plan: breakfast, snacks, lunch; don’t skip things and don’t compare yourself to other family members! The last thing you want to do is arrive at the meal ravenous. 

It’s hard to be intuitive when you haven’t eaten all day. Deciding to restrict prior to the Thanksgiving meal can only set you up for trouble. A malnourished brain is not able to properly assess a situation, make the best decisions, or react appropriately to your surroundings or hunger. A starved brain might get even more overwhelmed and anxious in this kind of situation, where ideally, you want the highest functioning brain and the best version of you to show up. 

Whether it’s before the meal or at the meal itself, you want to try to get in adequate nutrition. Diversifying what you eat to ensure your body is getting enough protein, carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables, and fats, will allow you to be more intuitive and listen to your body at the meal. This will keep you feeling better throughout the day, hopefully then avoiding the low blood sugar moodiness and the overstuffed food coma. 

Intuitive eating is very hard to do on any given day for those struggling with an eating disorder; it is especially difficult on Thanksgiving. Knowing if you’re hungry, what you’re hungry for, or why you’re hungry for it means trusting and listening inward. This means not counting, weighing, or calculating what your brain and body needs. This will require a willingness to do things differently and to practice listening for internal signals of hunger and satisfaction. 

And even if we can figure out how to do all of that, it’s hard to deal with the aftermath, to accept what we have consumed. Having an intention as to what you’d like to see happen will help you get through the day. Perhaps, before you get to the Thanksgiving meal, decide you will do two things differently than last year. For example, maybe this year you will put something from each food group on your plate, or you will try a piece of dessert. Accept that the goal is not to aim for the “perfect” Thanksgiving, but to do something different that you usually do. 

Try to move yourself away from the chatter in your head. Instead of dwelling on what’s good and bad, fattening vs. healthy, move toward what is most satisfying. What do you like the most? Give yourself permission to choose from your hunger and not your head.  Taste your food, be present, and take your time. The same plan will work for dessert, too. Look at the options, see what you like the best, decide what and how much you will put on your place… and eat mindfully, be present, taste and savor each bite! 

Another goal may be to remember that there’s more to Thanksgiving than the food. Try to take in the day! Can you find joy and satisfaction in other things going on around you? How about looking forward to the people you are going to see, or the leaves changing colors, or the big football game on TV? Maybe you can be the one to introduce something new to your holiday, start a new tradition. 

Make the day more enjoyable for yourself—suggest playing a game like charades or Pictionary or Monopoly. Try to start a dance party—make a playlist of songs that have meaning to your family or find some good oldies to get mom and grandma up and dancing. Maybe even sit in the living room and tell stories from years past. Ask the older generation about their lives before you were born, and what they did on Thanksgiving years ago. Ask the youngest generation about the newest trends at school and what’s cool in pop-culture. 

Above all else though, be kind to yourself. If you eat something more or different than you plan to, be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend. Every day is a new opportunity for you to listen to your hunger, eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and to learn to trust yourself—it’s a process. This takes a lot of practice, so be kind to yourself. Keep facing and stepping forward, this journey is always about progression, not perfection.