We’re in the midst of holiday season now, often a time when people who don’t have a peaceful relationship to food start to freak out a bit about eating.
Mainstream media doesn’t help, with its scare articles about avoiding holiday weight gain and how to not eat what you want at parties.
Within this type of diet culture, instead of enjoying the special food and company of friends and family in a relaxing way, we end up in fear and distraction. We play at restriction by trying not to eat the foods we want the most. But overeating might happen anyway – most likely because of that restriction mindset – and then we fall into the guilt-restrict-overeat cycle. This is a lousy way to spend the holidays!
The non-diet approach encourages you to approach eating in a different way. Sometimes accidental overeating happens, and that’s okay. Sometimes accidental under-eating happens and that’s okay too. No one is a perfect eater, nor should we be trying to be. The goal is peace with food, honoring internal cues most of the time, and not having constant worry about eating.
For those of you who are not in a place of peace with food just yet, Aaron and I created this Dietitians Unplugged podcast episode to help you on that journey. Get a mug of cocoa, take some deep, relaxing breaths, and have a listen.
With (U.S.) Thanksgiving here and Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Pancha Ganapati/ Dies Natalis Solis Invicti/Saturnalia/Festivus (apologies if I missed yours) right around the corner, we’re about to face a lot of eating events. Startpanicking now! Wait, we’re not on diets here. Alright everyone, as you were.
If you are a diet survivor, though, you might still suffer some residual anxiety around holiday season eating. If you’ve been learning to eat intuitively, this will help enormously in taking off the pressure of what can sometimes feel like a two-month-long eat-a-thon. I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, some holiday season dieting reminiscences…
Weight Watchers used to spend a lot of time giving us strategies (for those who bothered to attend during this time; so many dieters recognized the futility of trying to restrict food over the holidays) for dealing with all the delicious food we’d be about to encounter. The underlying message always seemed to be, “Don’t eat the delicious food.” It was all about filling up on “healthy” (aka low cal) food (popcorn, pretzels, apples, carrot sticks) before a party or dinner so you didn’t eat the tantalizing food (as though this could stem the tide of diet-hunger and food lust that would hit me at parties). Strategies for turning down dessert at Thanksgiving (HUH?!?!), strategies for not taking seconds even if you want them. Strategies like filling your hands with a glass of water and a napkin so you can become a juggler can’t pick up hors d’oeuvres. Basically, strategies to deny yourself what you really want, when you really want it.
All of these seemed silly even to me at the time. Because even on a diet, I knew I would want to eat, would eat, and would want to seem like other people who were eating without restriction or guilt or worry about their weight (because those people still existed at the time)…and on January 2, start all over again with renewed dieting efforts. So yes, I would eat, but not without a gravy boat of weight gain anxiety to carry me through the season.
And inevitably, I would frequently overeat to the point of unpleasantness. Being on a diet made me damn hungry! I was anxious, overate, felt guilty, restrict again, overeat again…you know where I’m going with this. And so I would end up not enjoying these meals half the time anyway. I’ve read enough and talked to enough people now to know this is not uncommon among dieters. Has this happened to you, too?
It’s not like this for me now. This is the time of year I can really hone my intuitive eating skills, listening to those internal body cues that tell me how I need to eat to feel good. Yes, there are more parties, potlucks and big dinners than normal, and yes, occasionally I’ll feel a bit stuffed, but this truly isn’t the mental crisis it used to be.
So what are actual useful strategies for eating during the holiday season? These are the ones that help me:
I can’t say this enough: don’t let yourself starve in preparation for a big meal. You want to have an appetite, yes, but arrive starving? No. If you get too hungry, it will be hard to focus on your stopping point, and chances are you’ll eat till you are uncomfortable. And that’s not fun. Snacks between meals, if you need them, are key to avoiding critical hunger level. I used to “save” my “points” for a week before a big deal meal – all us WW folks did, there was just no way to enjoy ourselves otherwise – and then unleash the hunger beast on the day of. Talk about a nasty food hangover…
Eat the foods you really want. If you know you’ve only got so much room and there are more foods to choose from than you could ever possibly eat, just zero in on whatever it is you want to try most. That might be your favorite foods, or some new things you’ve never tried (or some of both). I get full fast, so I skip fillers like bread or boring crudité that I can’t get excited about in favor foods I normally wouldn’t make at home. What helps with determining foods you really want to eat? Not being overly hungry (see #1).
Know that this isn’t your Last Supper. You’ll be able to eat again, whenever you want. The specter of going hungry later, when I was dieting, was a driving force in my overeating. Yes, I might not be able to have this particular meal later, but I’ll try to have something just as good. And if you can take some leftovers home to eat at a later time? Score! (Note, taking leftovers home might only work around people you know well, not so much at office parties. Though I have also been witness to this.)
Remember it isn’t just all about the food. Even I can admit that Weight Watchers got this one right when they told us that the focus of parties and dinners shouldn’t just be all about the food (hey, even a broken clock is right twice a day). The food really is just a medium through which we share experiences with others. We don’t need to use that to trick us out of eating food though – we just need to remember that connections with others and eating comfortably are both ways to nourish ourselves, physically and emotionally.
None of these tips is about how to avoid food you want to eat. And if you do get too full? Hey, that’s okay too. We’re not aiming for eating perfection. Your body, when it has found a comfortable equilibrium, can handle that once in a while. It might not feel good, but it’s also not the end of the world. You’re still gathering eating experiences to inform how you eat at your next meal so it’s all useful information.
Above all, tolerate no eating guilt! Happy Thanksgiving!