There’s no escaping weight loss ads this month. If it’s triggering, and particularly if you have a history of disordered eating, how do you keep all the noise from destroying your mental health? Create an action plan in advance, recommends Chantal Gil, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and disordered eating specialist with Duke Health.
Think about what you’ll do when you inevitably come across dieting messaging and how you’ll keep it from igniting a downward spiral. Dr. Gil suggests turning your attention to something else when this happens, like listening to music or calling a friend. (Distraction helps!) A little more expert guidance to prepare for the inevitable, right here.
1. Pre-empt dieting conversations.
Be aware that you’ll likely be around people who are going hard on diets and exercise. “This combo can be extra hard for someone recovering from disordered eating—and just generally,” says Katherine Metzelaar, R.D., cofounder and CEO of Brave Space Nutrition, which specializes in helping people struggling with disordered eating. Ask family and friends to avoid talk of new diets or programs with you.
2. Clean up your social media.
Best if you can take a social media break (can ya bear it?), but at least be more intentional about the time you spend online. When you see triggering content or ads, report them. “Click I don’t want to see this again, or just report it as promoting eating disorders,” Metzelaar says.
And unfollow anyone who makes you feel like crap. Instead of cleaning out your fridge, clean out your social media follow list. You can also simply mute anyone who will likely be posting things that might set you off this month.
In their place, follow people who actually make you feel good. Hannah Belvo, a 29-year-old emergency room technician who fell into disordered eating patterns in college, recommends The Gifts of Imperfection author Brene Brown and anti-dieting dietitians, such as Shana Minei Spence, R.D., and Katherine Metzelaar, R.D. “They all help me,” Belvo says.
3. Book an extra therapy appointment.
Since this is a particularly rough time of year for anyone with body issues or a history of disordered eating, Dr. Gil recommends you proactively set up a therapy appointment so you have extra support already on the books right when you’ll need it most. If you don’t already have a therapist, consider finding one who uses the HAES (Healthy at Every Size) framework, which avoids stigmatizing weight. Find one at the Association for Size Diversity and Health.
Virtual outpatient treatment can also be an option for anyone whose mental and physical health is suffering due to disordered eating. “Technology closes the access gap and helps young people remain in school,” says Kristina Saffran, cofounder and CEO of Equip, an outpatient, evidence-based care app for people with disordered eating. “Extracurricular activities, life events, and family members in the household are integrated into treatment.”
Virtual care also allows providers to connect with patients more quickly. Traditional eating disorder treatment programs typically have limited capacity and three-week waits or longer.
4. Remove the “thin is great” goggles.
The hardest part of recovering from disordered eating while existing in a diet culture, Metzelaar says, is not being shielded from messaging that thinner is better. “Eating disorders really romanticize when we were our thinnest,” she says. “People believe they were happier when they were thinner—or will be if they lose weight.”
The desire to want to be in a slimmer body doesn’t usually go away with therapy, says Metzelaar, but the pursuit of it becomes less desirable when you increase your awareness of the harmful behaviors it requires.
5. Make plans with Your People.
Support is key. Spend time with people who actually make you feel good about yourself. And if you have struggled with disordered eating, make a short list of people you can reach out to for in-the-moment help if and when you need it.
Don’t forget the person who has the most outsized influence: yourself. “Prioritize self care: It’s a key preventive measure for avoiding negative thoughts or behaviors, and a reminder to yourself that you’re important and that you’re taking time out for yourself because you matter,” says psychologist Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine who focuses on health behavior change, disordered eating, and weight management. “Remind yourself of what your body can do and that your feelings are temporary.”
6. Consider nutrition counseling.
For those really struggling with their relationship with food, nutrition counseling—the intersection of mental health and nutrition—can be a game-changer.
“It’s a holistic way of working with someone to help them heal their relationship with food and their body,” explains Metzelaar. “We challenge a lot of beliefs. People come in with a big bag of rules even if they’re not following a specific diet. We get back to the basics of what the body needs.”
Counseling also resets the body’s signs and signals as it relates to fullness and hunger, something most people with disordered eating are disconnected from.
7. Contact a helpline for immediate support.
The National Eating Disorder Association is available 24/7 for anyone who needs help right away. Call or text 800-931-2237 or online chat at nationaleatingdisorders.org.
Want more ways to make mental health a priority in 2023? Sign up for our newsletter and get Mental in your inbox!