Going on holiday with an eating disorder

Going on holiday with an eating disorder often presents a number of challenges. It’s not always as simple as flying somewhere exotic, flopping on a sunlounger and relaxing.

If you’re living with an eating disorder in your family, you’ll no doubt feel conflicted by the need for your family to enjoy some time away together, and the risk of upsetting the familiarity of your home routine.

In this post, Dr Amy Harrison, Senior Psychologist with Altum Health, shares her advice for going on holiday with an eating disorder. We look at how this might impact the type of holiday you choose, how to manage food choices while away from home, and the importance of having an ally by your side.

What’s your destination?

As a parent of a young person struggling with an eating disorder, figuring out what type of holiday is best for all family members can be tough.

While someone living with an eating disorder might hate the idea of lying on a beach in a bikini, other family members, especially younger siblings, might be desperate to hang out at the beach or by a hotel pool.

So how do you get the balance right?

The best course of action is to plan your family holiday together. Get everyone’s input as to what might be possible.

Bear in mind that holidays come in many different guises – they don’t necessarily need to be an all inclusive hotel and pool affair.

Active holidays are great fun, for example, sailing holidays. Or holidays that include a variety of activities to suit all members of the family, for example, biking or hiking if this is appropriate for your loved one’s physical health.

Be sure to build in rest days on these types of holidays and factor in some extra nutrition, too. Keep in mind that being outside of their regular exercise routine can be quite stressful for someone living with an eating disorder. 

Discuss your loved one’s thoughts and feelings around this. Time away provides the chance to challenge themselves to do something different – do they feel ok to try that? Sightseeing is a great way to stay active while giving their body a rest from formal exercise, for example. 

And if you do venture to the beach, try to encourage your loved one to zoom out of the micro details. Try to resist the urge to draw comparisons with other peoples’ bodies and focus on an activity instead, for example, making some sand art or reading a book. 

Perhaps your loved one is at the stage of their recovery where they can look at the ‘bigger picture’, noticing that peoples’ bodies come in all sorts of beautiful shapes and sizes, and while they may feel more exposed wearing fewer clothes, other people on the beach aren’t actually as bothered as they might think. 

Ask them: “Will you be thinking about this in five years’ time? Will you even remember it? Or will you remember the fun we’ve had and memories we’ve made?”

Managing food choices when going on holiday with an eating disorder

The key to going on holiday with an eating disorder is planning. Spend plenty of time discussing and planning all aspects of your holiday before you set off. This includes where to go, how you’ll get there, and the food choices you’ll make while away.

The decisions you’ll need to make surrounding food will depend on where you go on holiday and the type of holiday you choose.

If you go on holiday in the UK, you’ll be able to take food with you, which makes it easier to stick to a meal plan.

If going abroad, you have a number of considerations to make:

1. Food options while travelling

Making a rushed choice from a busy airport or selecting from a limited array on an in-flight menu is often incredibly stressful for someone living with an eating disorder.

Again, forward planning will be your saviour here. Make sure to pack some emergency supplies for the journey, for example, cereal bars that you know your child is ok with. If travelling by plane, your doctor may also be able to write a note to the airport authorising you to take additional provisions onto the plane.

2. Food options while on holiday


Self-catering holidays

If you opt for a self-catering holiday, even abroad, it’s possible to research the products available in the local supermarket online ahead of time. That way, you’ll be able to create a meal plan to replicate the foods you make at home.

Half-board and all-inclusive holidays

If your holiday is half-board or all-inclusive, your loved one may find it possible to try eating out, or within the hotel restaurant, for example. However, this comes with its own set of challenges to prepare for. 

  • The volume of food and the number of people at an all-inclusive hotel buffet can be quite daunting for someone suffering with an eating disorder.

To help overcome this, discuss this scenario with your loved one in advance to find out what they’re comfortable with. 

Perhaps having a family member making a plate of food for them – containing items that are similar to what’s on their meal plan at home – would offer a solution.

  • For someone suffering with binge eating disorder, having 24/7 access to food in an all-inclusive resort may feel overwhelming. 

We’d recommend pre-planning how you’ll build your plate of food, while still allowing yourself to enjoy the food available, having treats, and trying new foods.

Dining out in a restaurant

Eating out can often be difficult for someone living with an eating disorder. Wandering around on a balmy evening, selecting a local taverna at random is probably not going to happen. 

People who struggle with eating disorders can have a high intolerance to uncertainty. More forward planning is required to reduce the reaction to uncertainty, which can include freezing on the spot and feeling panicked.

But while planning is key, the plans must be flexible. Just like a Formula 1 team, you’ll need to create a number of different strategies (plan As, Bs, Cs, Ds, Es and so on) that you can deploy in order to achieve the best possible outcome. 

The internet is your friend here. Before you set off on holiday, research the local restaurants at your holiday destination. Look at the menus with your loved one ahead of time and make a number of selections they’d be happy to try. Not just one choice, but a plan A, B, and C, should the restaurant not have your initial selection. This will help to reduce some of the decision making ‘in the moment’, when it may feel more stressful. 

If sitting in a busy restaurant feels too daunting, spend some time beforehand visualising the scene. It may be that a smaller restaurant or dining outside of peak times might suit your family better. 

Remember, it’s always an option to step away from the situation, help your loved one to try to regulate their feelings (try our favourite 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique), and have another try later. 

It might be that your loved one is at a stage in their recovery where they’d like to challenge themselves. Perhaps returning to the restaurant but choosing to wear headphones and listen to music during the meal. Or perhaps a family member can act as an ally, chatting with them and helping to distract them from their negative emotions.

Have a plan for if it all feels too much. For example, to head back to your accommodation and have some emergency supplies (remember those cereal bars) instead.

Lastly, however the scenario plays out, have a ‘debrief’ with your loved one afterwards. Discuss what they learnt from that experience or what could be done differently next time. For example, should you aim to go for dinner at a different time tomorrow night and would a table in the corner be more comfortable?

And if you hit a bump in the road while on holiday?

Lapses in recovery are normal and challenges are expected when outside of your familiar routine. But planning will help to mitigate this. It will be worth it! 

If you hit a bump in the road, go back to what works. Look at what’s on the meal plan and find food that’s similar. 

In calm moments, discuss with your loved one what they’re learning from this experience. They may be reluctant to disclose if they’re struggling, but encourage them not to suffer in silence, because they’re on this holiday too and deserve to have a good time.

Draw up a ‘crisis plan’ before you go on holiday to outline the scenarios that could occur and how you’ll handle them. Create this by constructing a selection of ‘if-then’ plans. 

For example, if your loved one freezes in a restaurant, then we’ll put headphones on and watch a movie we’ve downloaded in advance. If your loved one feels the urge to purge, then we’ll go for a walk together.

Creating a plan of this nature with your loved one will help to reduce the uncertainty we touched upon earlier. It’s also an evidenced-based way of turning intentions into action.

And remember, the power of modern technology means your therapist is never too far away should you need them. Here at Altum Health, we’re available for online therapy sessions. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

For more support with handling having an eating disorder in your family, download your free copy of our family support guide – Living with an Eating Disorder in your Family. 

It looks at how best to help your loved one, the treatments available, what to expect during the recovery process, and how to support other family members too.

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