'Food is part of the Christmas fun now'
- 25 December 2011
- From the section Health
Christmas is a time of year dominated by food.
From tasty roast turkey to more-ish mince pies and endlessly tempting tins of chocolates, it's a season for feasting and enjoying everything edible.
But for people like Pippa Wilson, who spent many Christmases coping with eating disorders, this time of year can be anything but joyful.
With counselling and the help and support of family, however, she is now able to enjoy baking mince pies with her three-year-old son and enjoy a Christmas party.
"I was forced to look at the issues that were making me miserable and deal with the underlying causes of my eating disorder.
"Food is just a symptom of something deeper. You don't battle the eating disorder and win," Pippa says.
"It's emotional and psychological - and it's not easy to deal with these problems. In my head I was unhappy."
With the support of her family, she was able to alleviate the symptoms and recover.
Food is fun
"Once you've recovered from an eating disorder, you can enjoy Christmas in a whole new way, because you appreciate how hard it used to be."
"Food is part of the fun now, but I don't focus on it much. I eat what I want, when I want, without worrying."
But like many people with eating disorders, the memories of those terrible Christmas are still raw.
Pippa was 19 when she first became anorexic, after binge-eating during her teens.
Her first Christmas with an eating disorder was miserable.
"I thought I could control things, but I couldn't keep starving myself. So I tried to eat normally on Christmas Day and in the end I became bulimic.
"I pretended to be fine, but purged behind closed doors. It was my way of coping with the situation."
Many people with anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorders say they start getting concerned about Christmas months before, sometimes as far ahead as the summer.
It is the combination of food, family and emotion that makes it such a daunting and difficult day, Pippa says.
Pippa spent the following Christmas alone in university accommodation with a pile of videos.
"I didn't want to do anything that would make me worse. I was still horribly ill but at least I wasn't terrified by all the food and the expectation of eating."
But are we all affected in some way by the tendency to over-indulge during the festive season?
Harriet Maxwell, a retired GP with an interest in eating disorders, has written a book - entitled Clarice - about a woman who becomes entangled in a world where food is both her greatest comfort and greatest enemy.
"Eating and food are undoubtedly very emotional things. What starts as comfort eating, satisfying a need for something, could turn into bulimia if you get to a size where you are not happy and feel too fat."
Pain and stress
Society is, arguably, obsessed with food. Fast, convenient food sold relatively cheaply is ubiquitous.
Rather than drinking or drugs, it is not surprising that some people turn to food for comfort.
Kings College London's online information on eating disorders explains why it can dominate these peoples' lives.
"Food and eating assume an abnormal significance... and rather than eat in response to hunger of appetite, individuals use food and eating to help them cope with painful or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, or with stressful situations."
However there is no single cause of an eating disorder. Research suggests that psychological, interpersonal, socio-cultural and biological factors all play a role.
Figures from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence suggest that 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder.
Around 10% of sufferers are anorexic, 40% are bulimic, and the rest have an eating disorder with no name. Young women aged 15 to 25 are most at risk.
But an eating disorder is by no means a life sentence, although the success of any treatment relies on the individual recognising they have a problem.
Mary George, spokesperson for Beat, the national eating disorders charity, urges understanding from family and friends, particularly at this time of year.
"Christmas is such a difficult time for someone with an eating disorder, and what the person needs is compassion and understanding from those around them.
"Breaking with tradition can be worthwhile if it allows the person freedom around food and eating - what matters is that the person feels they can cope, not that they eat 'normally'."