In December and January, we’re inundated with advice about how to eat healthy and how to prevent weight gain. Unfortunately, all of this advice just makes people more and more anxious about eating and actually enjoying the holidays.
We live in a culture that normalizes the obsession with food, weight and dieting. When the holiday season rolls around, the media – especially women’s magazines – gives advice to readers about what to eat, what not to eat, how to get thinner or how to avoid weight gain. This advice is offered as the way to take good care of yourself, but it actually backfires on many levels.
For many people who are seeing family from out of town, there is anxiety about whether they’ll be seen as “too fat.” All of these holiday articles about food and weight during this season just feed into that anxiety. It’s a shame that the focus becomes on whether you’ll be thin enough to be acceptable, rather than on the pleasure of seeing your family. Of course, family celebrations can also be fraught with dynamics that create anxiety – sometimes focusing on weight is a way to avoid the “real” issues. Under these circumstances, the magazine tips support the idea that if you can just lose weight, everything will be okay. However, getting in touch with your true feelings and figuring out strategies to deal with family situations is much more helpful than diverting yourself with diet talk.
If you do try to follow the advice to eat less of whatever their latest recommendation is, and to worry about your body size, you will pay the price. Focusing on food and your weight means you are less present at holiday gatherings. Eating less than you need or depriving yourself of favorite holiday foods set you up this time of year – as it does throughout the year – to binge at a later time. It’s not uncommon for people to be “good” while with their family, only to find themselves overeating when they return home or are once again by themselves.
Holiday Tips and Tricks
Although this may seem obvious, the best way to navigate these tips and tricks is to avoid reading them! Instead, do your utmost to check in with yourself as you approach the holiday season. What went well for you last year? What were your triggers? What has helped you with those triggers in the past? After all, you are your own best expert!
If you do choose to look at some of the advice, remember that there are no “tricks” when it comes to your hunger and satisfaction. When you read a tip, ask yourself what is the intention behind it? If it focuses on weight loss through some sort of manipulation of your food, it is a diet tip – and diets do not work! If it is a tip that makes sense to you – and does not create anxiety – you can experiment with it. However, stay conscious of how it makes you feel as you implement the tip; if you notice any increase around the obsession with food and weight, let it go.
At the risk of this sounding like yet another “tip,” your goal is to do what you try to do all year long as an attuned/intuitive eater: eat when you are hungry, eat what you are hungry for, and stop when you feel satisfied. Whatever strategies work for you to stay mindful and compassionate with yourself day in and day out, are the exact same strategies to use during the holiday season.
Deciphering Healthy Advice
First and foremost, if the purpose of the advice is for weight loss, then it’s a diet in disguise. Remember that these types of food restrictions set you up to feel deprived, which usually triggers overeating. Just because advice includes “healthy” foods, doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for you.
If you read advice that requires you be constantly vigilant and “in control,” then that advice does not support a healthy relationship with food. Advice that is truly healthy should make you feel that you are taking good care of yourself, and that you are in charge of your eating. For example, let’s say you read about how fiber is healthful, keeping your digestive system functioning well. Based on that information, you may decide to increase your fiber by adding beans to your diet, or by switching to whole grain breads and/or pastas. As long as you feel that the change in your eating supports your physical well-being and keeps you feeling in charge of your eating, then it’s worth experimenting. It’s your responsibility not to make those suggestions into your new, rigid rules. You can choose brown rice much of the time because you believe it supports your health, and then still eat white rice just because you’re in the mood for it!
Decisions to follow more restrictive advice will also be affected by any conditions that you have, such as if you are lactose intolerant or have Celiac’s disease. In these cases, the decisions to give up dairy or gluten respectively come from a place of good caretaking and may be “healthy” for you, but would not apply to – or be “healthy” for – the general population.
We come back to the notion that you have the wisdom to know what is healthy for you. When you feel grounded in attuned eating – eating when you are hungry, eating what you are hungry for as you choose from a wide variety of foods, and stopping when satisfied, you are in a strong position to evaluate what nutritional advice makes sense for you to take, based on whether it leaves you feeling nourished and comfortable, or whether it leaves you feeling guilty and preoccupied.
Navigating Diet Conversations
The holiday season gives us an opportunity to be together with family and friends in a deeper and more connected way than simply focusing on what we’ve eaten or not eaten, or how much we weigh. In The Diet Survivor’s Handbook, Lesson #57 reads:
Avoid diet conversations: They are boring, encourage competition among women, and keep you from knowing your true nature and spirit.
“As a diet survivors, you well know the endless conversations shared among friends, family, and colleagues regarding the topic of diets, weight and body size. In this culture, women are encouraged to be concerned with the minutiae of their bodies and to bond together in sisterhood over body hatred…What is the cost for creative, intelligent, and passionate women to direct these qualities into the relentless pursuit of thinness? How many conversations focus on weight at the expense of sharing important ideas and insights about yourself, each other and the world?
Think about realistic ways to move away from diet conversations. Refuse to take part in the endless diet talk that acts as an obstacle to rewarding conversations that are a part of living a rich life. This means committing yourself to refrain from initiating diet conversations and exploring ways to redirect diet conversations initiated by others.” (pp. 278-279).
We suggest that you develop a sentence for yourself that you can use when the topic of holiday weight gain comes up. For example, you might respond, “I’d rather not focus on weight and food, but I’d love to hear about ___________________(fill in the blank with whatever is of interest to you). Your goal is to refocus the conversation in a way that will allow you to connect with those around you.
Of course, there are times you will meet with resistance. You may need to use you internal compassionate voice to tell you that you do not have to join in; this is the issue of your family and friends, but you don’t have to participate. If it’s a good time to help clear the table or make a trip to the bathroom, give yourself permission to actively move away from the conversation. Use that time to consider other topics that will feel more meaningful to you.
We’d like to wish all of the A Weigh Out Circle an abundant and peaceful holiday season!
Eat well! Live well! Be well! Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, are co-authors of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet www.dietsurvivors.com Chicago Center for Overcoming Overeating: 847.267.1200