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Holidays bring challenges for eating disorder sufferers

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  • Being around food on holidays can be overwhelming for people with eating disorders
  • Never go to a party hungry; have a meal before to prevent binging
  • Bring a wingman to gatherings to be your support system
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By Judy Fortin
CNN Medical Correspondent
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KENNESAW, Georgia (CNN) -- The sweet smell of sugar cookies baking filled the air in Kris Shock's kitchen.

Kris Shock, who once struggled with bulimia, enjoys cookies with her son, Drew.

She pulled a tray from the oven and sat down with her 9-year-old son, Drew, to frost the treats.

Then, Shock did something that might have been unthinkable for her a few years ago. She took a bite of a cookie.

Shock, 36, of Kennesaw, Georgia, spent most of her adolescence and early adulthood struggling with bulimia and an addiction to diet pills.

Long holiday seasons were always the worst, Shock said, as she dealt with the stress of trying to create a picture-perfect Thanksgiving and Christmas for her family.

"I would be emotionally and physically exhausted come the New Year, and I would have no memories to show for it other than sheer anxiety," Shock recalled. "I would be acting out at every moment, whether that was using diet pills, taking laxatives or restrictive behavior, whatever I used to cope at that moment."

Now in recovery, Shock approaches the holidays and all that tempting food with a bit of trepidation. Video Watch more on coping with holiday eating challenges »

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"I always keep in mind that relapse is potentially possible if I don't do the right things," Shock said. "For me, that is being honest with myself, knowing that tomorrow I may have to pick up the phone and call a nutritionist ... or call my therapist."

That's just what some experts recommend, including Cynthia Bulik, director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program.

"For some people, the holiday season is filled with joyous occasions and wonderful food," Bulik said. "For other people, it can actually be quite a nightmare ... especially if you have eating disorders."

Bulik is busy these days helping her patients figure out how to navigate all the stress-inducing holiday parties and family gatherings.

She tells people with eating disorders, "Keep your support team on speed dial."

Bulik targeted her advice to people who suffer from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder in which people develop an aversion to food, lose a lot of weight and are afraid of gaining weight.

"It can be incredibly overwhelming to be surrounded by so many different types of food," Bulik noted. "We often suggest that people with anorexia go to a party with a wingman. ... Take someone with you who is safe, to whom you can say, 'This is really tough for me. I need to take a break.' "

She shared similar advice for those who suffer from bulimia, a condition in which people binge and purge.

"We tell people to never go to a party hungry. ... That's the worst thing to do. It's really best to have a decent meal before you get there so you're not tempted to binge when you're at the party," Bulik recommended.

One of Shock's biggest challenges while recovering from bulimia was coping with probing family members.

"It was very anxiety-filled," Shock recalled, "I had to eat dinner with all these people where, many times, there were unspoken things I wanted to say."

Last Christmas, Shock tried a new strategy: eating dinner with her husband and children first and then attending a party. Shock called it a safer situation.

"I can take care of my physical body and then handle the process, the emotional anxiety that comes with typical social situations," she said.

Bulik advises well-meaning family members to try to help people with eating disorders feel as comfortable as possible.

"There is no play book," she said. "The best thing to do is not to push. ... Don't focus on their appearance, don't focus on what they're eating."

Health Library

  • MayoClinic.com: Bulimia nervosa
  • MayoClinic.com: Eating disorder

Another complication may occur when someone with an eating disorder must step into the chef's role and prepare dinner for a crowd.

Bulik advised, "If it is too tough to prepare that meal for 20 people that year, call in some help. Get takeout for a change. Do something that is easier for you. Don't always feel like you have to be the perfect hostess, because that can be the first step toward relapse."

Shock is taking the advice to heart. Remember the sugar cookies she was frosting with her son? Rather than stress out about making them from scratch, she bought the slice-and-bake version at the supermarket.

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She figured she'd have more fun spending the extra time with her son.

"Take care of yourself," she advised. "You will feel empowered."

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