The holidays are upon us and with the stress and joy of shopping, cooking, traveling, and spending time with family comes an even greater stress if you struggle with food.
As if the festive pressures and temptations this time of year weren't enough, the holiday season doubles as weight loss commercial season, a time when overindulgence and diet culture duke it out in the spirit of cheer and fresh starts.
If your relationship with food feels extra fragile this time of year, you're not alone. If festive indulgence feels good to you, enjoy it! But if you’ve grown to experience holiday abundance as a slippery emotional slope, here are some suggestions for adding a little traction to your boots.
Don't Skip Meals
Ever find yourself skipping meals in anticipation of the big feast? We often do this to lessen the bloat that's sure to come later in the evening, or even grant us permission to dive head first into the smorgasbord that awaits. But inconsistent eating can send us into a swirl of unwanted behaviors. What appears to be control is simply an illusion.
Restricting food is what physiologically and psychologically leads us to bingeing behaviors. A binge doesn't simply mean overeating, it means doing so secretively and with shame. So if you're skipping meals to avoid overeating, you're likely to overeat anyway, only now with an emotional consequence.
Plus, by skipping meals, you're empowering the disordered eater and diet mindset within you. Instead, consider that the joy and bloat of abundance and a little excess during the holidays can actually be a good thing, not something you should try to avoid or feel unworthy of. Let go of the idea that you need to earn abundance through forced scarcity. Consider that you don't need to compensate for enjoying your food. Instead focus on celebrating with those you love which is hard to do when you're hungry and preoccupied with your intake rules.
To eat mindfully means to slow down, taste your food, feel the somatic sensations of it, and be in the moment. So often we either eat on the go, eat while we're multitasking, eat to avoid, or eat rapidly because we're chasing down some kind of distress. We don't get to enjoy the sensory experience of eating delicious food because we're serving the concept of consumption instead. If you're struggling with the idea of being more mindful when you eat, try the raisin meditation which can help you to see what it looks like to slow down and truly be in the moment.
Seek Guidance with Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating means you stop fighting with food and start listening to your body. Honor your hunger, feed yourself, stop when you're full. Don't eat with the intention to restrict or lose weight, eat with the intention to feed your body the way it's asking to be fed, the way it deserves to be fed. Power down the incoming judgments and power up your somatic attunement. Your body knows how to tell you what it needs, now it’s time you learn how to listen. Find an intuitive eating coach if this is something you're interested in working on.
Mindful and intuitive eating are methods of empowerment. For those of us who struggle with relating to food and our bodies, implementing these exercises brings us back to what’s important: ourselves. It is common for our eating instincts to be socialized out of us from young ages. Knowledge about hunger versus appetite, what we want to eat, how much of it feels good, when to stop and why – these are all things we probably knew once on a primal, cellular level. And if we knew it once, we still do. We just have to do some counter-conditioning of the social expectations that were placed upon us in order to dig up that information.
For example, you may have been a picky eater as a child, and maybe that got you punished. Maybe you weren’t allowed to leave the table until you ate the one thing that made you gag and through that experience you learned that listening to your body was less important than listening to your parents. Or perhaps as you were approaching adolescents, already feeling uncertain in your own skin, you overheard some peers talking about how you should put down the chips because you were getting a little chubby. The chips may have been perfectly acceptable snack at the time, and yet you absorbed a message that told you otherwise. These myths exist in us all to varying degrees, we just need to get back to basics and reclaim our relationships with ourselves. Quieting down the outside world and reconnecting through mindfulness and intuition is how we begin to achieve that.
Create a Food Ritual
In conjunction with mindful and intuitive eating, I've found it helpful to create a ritual that begins and ends mealtime, setting some sacred structure around eating which can prevent restriction and bingeing. This may be difficult to do with friends and family around, but it's worth a shot. It can certainly be helpful in the following days when leftovers abound.
Here’s a quick outline that you can amend as needed.
Plate your food and put the rest away.
Sit down in a designated meal space, not the couch or your bed, and certainly don't stand at the kitchen sink.
Acknowledge that you're about to begin eating. If you're the praying kind, this is your moment. If you'd rather simply sit in gratitude for the meal, that works too.
Avoid distractions while you eat, unless it's good conversation.
Eat slowly - this is the mindful part.
Listen to your body. If you feel yourself become full and there's still food on your plate, honor your body and stop eating. If you've finished your plate and find you're still hungry, allow yourself more - this is the intuitive part.
Give yourself a few minutes at the table before officially deciding you're done.
Close the meal with another prayer or moment of reflection to signal the end.
Clean up your eating space and store/toss away anything you didn't eat. Move on to another area of the house.
A food ritual may sound a little strange and overly complex, I admit. But if you're filled with food-related anxiety, setting containment for a meal can help manage urges to restrict or binge. Too often we either fear food altogether, or squeeze it into our busy lives like some kind of nuisance and not the important exercise it is. By prioritizing the meal over the distractions and slowing down your engagement with food, you repair your relationship to it. Incorporating mindfulness and intuitive eating helps you build up a new muscle memory which empowers you to tell the food what to do and not the other way around.
Deprivation and craving-denial, like total restriction, might be something you struggle with on a daily basis. And you might have noticed that these attempts to avoid overeating eventually spur on a binge. Don't deprive yourself of a sweet treat or a festive cocktail, especially if it's something you only get to enjoy this time of year. My mom makes incredible 7-layer-cookies only at Christmastime, so you can bet I have no shame when I include them in Christmas morning breakfast.
Be Kind to Yourself
At any given moment, we're just doing the best that we can. Don't undermine the deeply rooted psychology that erupted into your food relationship by demeaning yourself for giving in to the swirl of temptation around you.
This is an overly social time of year and our social times tend to revolve around food and drink (they help social anxiety, among other things), so if you find yourself doing something you wish you hadn't, take the lesson and move forward. There's no point in shaming yourself today for what you ate last night. There's a common, future-focused AA quote that I really love for times like these: Do the next right thing. The "right thing" being whatever's right for you.
Turn Off the Weight Loss Ads
If losing weight is your bag, go get 'em! But if you're just trying to get through the season fully intact to see the new year, #resist. Why? Because diet culture is the last thing any of us needs, especially those of us struggling to manage our eating patterns.
If that sounds contradictory to you, then you might be giving diet culture too much credit. Let's be clear: diet culture isn't here for your health, it's here to convince you you're not enough until you're thin. It's a poisonous message that contributes to our collective struggles, not solves them. So be conscious of what messaging you're consuming because it might be contributing to negative self-talk, feelings of worthlessness, and the illusion that you can't reach your own personal goal until you meet society's.
Increasing your awareness of what ideologies you’re being fed can also increase your awareness of how you speak to yourself, conceptualize beauty, and live up to. Whose expectations are you living by?
Donate the Excess
If your family is anything like mine, your leftovers might outlast the amount of days left in the week. If you find yourself swimming in unopened desserts, unsuccessful dishes, or unused ingredients, don't keep them around the house for your eyes to ogle. Consider donating to any of the following resources:
Ample Harvest: Donate any home-grown or excess fresh foods that didn't make it to the table.
Homeless Shelter Directory: Find a nearby homeless shelter and see if they're accepting food donations.
This is a great way to put unwanted excess to good use instead of feeling guilty about disposing it. Donating helps provide needed items to under-served communities who may be feeling especially isolated this time of year.
So this holiday season, and every season, lead with curiosity and self-compassion. Get to know what you find important and live those values accordingly while giving yourself space for fun and enjoyment.