Expert tips for guilt-free eating during the holidays
The holiday season is upon us—AKA the season of non-stop food talk, stress, and anxiety over holiday eating. For individuals who struggle with their weight (whether to lose it or gain it), body image, and self-love, this is a particularly challenging time of year. Many will engage in disordered eating behaviors, including restricting and binging, trying to “make up” for eating by starving or working out, obsessing over ingredients and counting every calorie, or eating and feeling guilty about the “damage done.” Between all the delicious meals, your fitness goals, and outside social pressures (from Instagram to nosy family members), it can all just be A LOT.
Since we are all different and have individual needs that need to be supported, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution—but there are things you can do to take the pressure off yourself.
Work on your mindset, and you’ll have less work to do
Your mindset and mentality around food is a crucial component of having a harmonious and loving relationship with food (and with the holiday season). This can be challenging since the internet is full of conflicting information, from lists of “good vs. bad” food to articles directing you to “eat this, NOT that.” It’s exhausting!
Although this takes time and practice, a good place to start is understanding that food is neither “bad,” nor “good.” It is just food. Once you understand that, you can also stop equating your morality to the food you eat. You are not “good” for having a salad, and you are not “bad” for having cake.
Stop acting like this is the only time you can eat this
Another perspective to begin shifting is that certain foods are only okay to eat during the holidays. While some dishes are seasonal or traditional (maybe they’re made by a loved one and evoke a certain holiday), the truth is that there are MANY “holiday” dishes you can enjoy throughout the year. You do not need to wait till Christmas, Hanukkah or any other holiday to enjoy some sugar cookies and your favorite foods.
This approach removes the “restrictive” mentality, which causes many to binge and eat excessively. The more we restrict and deprive ourselves of “bad” foods, the more likely we are to "give in" and consume excessively. Understanding that you can eat foods you love throughout the year creates balance, an opportunity to focus on and enjoy those “special” dishes, savoring them, and expressing gratitude for them at this time.
No, you can’t save the calories for later
So often people will skip meals in an attempt to “save the calories for later.” The one thing you should not do is starve yourself prior to a holiday meal, or attempt to “burn off calories in advance.” That’s not how nutrition works. Do your best to nourish throughout the day, eating meals high in protein, prioritizing vegetables, moderate carbs, and fats. This way, you don’t show up to dinner starving and then “lose control.” (By the way, feeling like you “need to control” what you eat is a characteristic of disordered eating! If you suspect you may be engaging in disordered eating behaviors, consult with an appropriate specialist.)
Yes, mindful eating matters
Often when people think of mindfulness, it’s usually in the context of meditation. However, mindfulness simply means being aware, conscious, and present in the now—all of which can be applied to our eating habits. Practicing mindful eating behaviors can also help you enjoy eating during the holidays, and at any time of year. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Avoid shoveling big spoonfuls of food into your mouth
- Take time to chew your food thoroughly
- Swallow before taking another bite
- Pause between bites by putting the utensils down and taking a few breaths
- Pay attention to flavors and textures, allowing yourself to savor them
Eat what you want, without neglecting what you need
When it comes to deciding what you should or shouldn’t eat, remember that unless it is something that causes an allergic reaction or serious digestive discomfort, nothing is really off-limits. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should eat everything in massive amounts. Instead, focus on making sure that your plate is colorful and contains protein. Colorful plates will ensure that you are eating your veggies, in addition to the mac’n’cheese, the potato salad, and the yams. Add a little bit of everything to your plate and give yourself time to enjoy it.
Also, wait 20 minutes before going for seconds. This will give you the chance to tune in and listen to your body. Our bodies are pretty good about telling us when they’ve had enough. If there is something you particularly loved, take it to-go and enjoy more tomorrow. If you do decide to go for seconds, remember, IT IS OKAY! There is nothing wrong with you for wanting to eat more delicious food—it’s perfectly normal and human to seek out pleasurable things. The mindset with which you approach eating is the most important.
Replace guilt and shame with joy and pleasure
Guilt, regret, self-deprecation, or the need for justification of what you eat has no place during the holidays, or at any other time. You are allowed to eat. You are allowed to enjoy food. You are allowed to share in the deliciousness. You are also allowed to say “NO” if you do not want to eat certain things—not because you think they are “bad” but because you would rather have something else.
Let the good times roll!
The holidays are a time for joy, love, and a shared passion for great food. Holiday eating shouldn’t be dreaded. Remember, what you do throughout the year matters much more than what you do during several holiday meals. Work on your mindset and mentality around food, practice mindful eating behaviors, make sure you have a colorful plate, and allow yourself to feel joy. You are worthy of feeling good and eating well.
And, if you still find yourself overwhelmed, or consumed by anxiety about eating, here are some phrases you can start practicing:
- “The food I eat does not define me as a person.”
- “I am worthy of feeling good around food.”
- “Food is not my enemy, and it is not my friend. Food is food. It is nourishment.”
- “I am allowed to enjoy my time with my loved ones, around amazing food.”
- “I give myself permission to feel good about eating.”
Aleks Zavlunova is a Holistic Behavior Therapist and Wellness Coach. She uses principles of human learning and behavior modification to help people develop sustainable skills and habits to lead healthier and happier lives. Aleks combines cognitive behavior psychology and nutrition science to help her clients begin to address maladaptive and self-destructive patterns and habits, build self-esteem, confidence, and self-love, by systematically improving their relationship with food. She strongly believes that our relationship with food greatly correlates with our relationship with the self, our emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing, as well as our relationships with others. You can contact her on Instagram @aleks.zavlunova