The period stretching from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day keeps us trapped in a giant whirlwind of contradictions. Gargantuan meals prompt (simultaneous) dieting injunctions. The wish to connect with family and friends gets tainted by Auntie Selma’s size-centric judgment [insert eye roll here]. Our wish to rest and slow down clashes with late nights and compulsory social engagements. It’s a time of year when emotions run high.
And for those of us who are used to constantly restraining our food intake, being confronted with copious amounts of delicious foods (that we typically don’t allow ourselves to eat), as well as social challenges, can trigger many more uncomfortable feelings, including guilt, shame, and a sense of being fixated on food or completely “out of control” around food. But holidays don’t have to rhyme with stress.
Here are three survival tips to enjoy eating during the holidays, 100 percent guilt-free.
Eating is intimately connected to pleasure. It is nature’s way to guarantee human survival. As such, feeling truly nourished involves a lot more than shoveling a bunch of nutrients down our throats (or we’d already be living on pre-made “nutritionally perfect” powders and sachets by now).
Thankfully, this is unlikely to happen because the appearance of food, the company in which we eat, our mindset, whether or not we have been fed an appropriate amount recently, the narratives and beliefs we – as individuals and as a culture – hold about food and weight all play a big role in how we approach eating and even in how we metabolize nutrients.
The most diet-conscious among us typically fear that the holidays will lead to “overeating”. Instead of avoiding food or social occasions driven by the fear of gaining weight, I’d encourage you to reconsider what overeating looks like, how harmless it typically is, and how finding ways to relax around food is in fact the best strategy to avoid eating past fullness. Here we go:
Firstly, the definition of overeating can vary greatly depending on the person concerned. If you are constantly counting calories, restricting food groups, or ignoring hunger cues, there is a good chance that you are not eating enough. And research shows that overeating or emotional eating typically happen as a physiological response to restrictive eating. It is therefore more common in people exercising controlled or restrained eating than it is with eaters able to follow their natural hunger and cravings. Let me rephrase this: the more you fear eating “too much” and the more you restrict foods you love, the higher your chances of overeating when given an opportunity. Instead, reconnecting to a more intuitive response to hunger and fullness by allowing a positive reframe of nutrition around pleasure, relaxation, and nourishment is a great way to finally enjoy satiety and leave behind difficult feelings of guilt, blame, and shame around eating.
Secondly, scientific evidence confirms that the human metabolism is perfectly capable of keeping a set point weight by burning “excessive” calories (or holding on to them if starvation occurs). Therefore, if you are doing a good job of trusting your body and listening to your hunger and fullness cues to your best ability, while letting your body enjoy the weight that it naturally returns to (not the one Auntie Selma told you would look better to attract potential suitors), research shows that a few heavier meals won’t affect your appearance at all, or certainly not as much as you’d fear it would.
Last but not least, if we were not constantly reminded (by a set of industries profiting from our insecurities) that we are imperfect and in need of a quick (weight loss) fix, there is a good chance we would not even consider eating a little more during a time of celebration to be a problem. In the same way, the idea that the food we eat during the holidays might be immoral, decadent, sinful, or make us guilty is preposterous. Food is just food; it has no morality. Additionally, thinness doesn’t automatically equate beauty and the link between weight and health is one of correlation, not causation. By challenging the beliefs we hold as a culture that thinness is a morally superior objective, not only are we turning daily weigh-ins into a pointless exercise, but we are also allowing all bodies to be considered good bodies and we get to recognize that eating “emotionally” during the craziness of the holidays is, in fact, a fairly harmless way humans resort to in order to handle big emotions…
So, if you have to unbutton your pants after your mother’s delicious Christmas lunch, remember to be kind to yourself and to show gratitude for this shared moment of joy that unites family and friends and only takes place once a year. Allow yourself to recognize that celebrations have for centuries been associated with eating a little too much. You have done nothing wrong and humanity won’t collapse. If it does, it definitely won’t be because you had a third serving of cake.
Fact: It’s a lot easier to control your own boundaries than to control what people think of you. If you really cannot face more of Auntie Selma’s fat-shaming comments, your grown-up self could decide whether you truly have to engage with her repeatedly. Although boundaries can seem like this huge mountain to climb at first, especially for people pleasers (who made a habit of volunteering for functions that cater to everyone else’s needs but their own), the reality is that, during the holidays or at any other time of the year, you have the power to organize your time and invest your energy as you see fit.
So, if you can, plan ahead: pick your social occasions, schedule plenty of recovery time, and weave enough self-care and rest into your program. Wherever you can, aim to prioritize engaging with people who are able to respect and support your needs, and avoid those who sap your energy or trigger difficult eating or body image episodes.
For last-minute invitations, buy yourself some time before answering: consider how you feel about the function, what preparation it involves on your part, who will be there, how supportive these guests are, and whether it might trigger a difficult trail of thoughts about eating, body, and self-esteem.
If (and only if) it sparks joy, pull a Marie Kondo and keep it. Otherwise, decline. If you decide or have to go ahead knowing that an event might be stressful, plan for additional self-care before and after the function. This could look like extra rest, a chance to journal, a visit to your therapist, a long walk in nature, some meditation or mindfulness exercises, gentle stretching, or a catch-up with your confidant.
If you have been struggling with food and body image, a good way to deal with holiday eating anxiety would be to communicate to family and friends, ahead of time, that you’d like to make the celebrations a “no body or diet comment” zone for all. Sure, Auntie Selma might lose her biggest conversation topic, but it might also encourage her to actually listen to others (for a change).
When the above is impossible to apply, and if conversations of diet or exercise routines irritate or bore you to death, know that you have the right to redirect them to topics that are actually interesting and worthy of your time. I love these affirmations by fat activist Ragen Chastain, for anyone in need of a reminder about setting personal boundaries:
Thanks for your concern, but I don’t believe we can judge someone’s health by their appearance, and it is a personal choice of mine not to engage in body and diet talk.
I have absolutely no interest in discussing my food intake with you.
I’m not soliciting opinions about my food choices.
My body is the constant companion that helps me do every single thing that I do every second of every day and it deserves respect and admiration.
Good luck! Have a happy, guilt-free holiday season!