It’s that time of year again: Christmas and New Year’s are quickly approaching. On the bright side, people are trying to figure out what’s on the menu where and who’s making what. Many of us look forward to celebrating food traditions (Southern-style mac ’n’ cheese anyone?) while sharing special moments with loved ones. On the other hand, the holidays can be a stressful and anxiety-provoking time of year for some of the same reasons it’s such a fun and festive time of year: lots of decisions about food and eating, and lots of people to make those decisions around.
In my experience as a dietitian, clients often handle the stress (food-related and non) of the season by choosing between two extremes: restricting themselves around the foods they love because they want to “be good,” or completely throwing in the towel and eating thoughtlessly because January is synonymous with “new year, new you.” The strategies sound like they’re total opposites, but they’re actually two sides of the same coin; they’re both ways of dealing with the food-related stress and anxiety that comes along with the holidays.
It’s pretty typical to have anxiety around food during the holidays. You may have family members pressuring you to eat more or eat less, commenting on your weight, or asking invasive questions about your health. Some of my clients consider completely avoiding holiday gatherings because of how unpleasant the experience can be. And, of course, going into this time of year is even more difficult if you have a history of disordered eating.
There’s a strategy I recommend to many of my clients who are anxiously anticipating (or full-on dreading) holiday meals. It’s based on intuitive eating, which was developed by two registered dietitians as a way to help people heal their fraught relationships with food caused by years of dieting. I find that it comes in especially handy during the holidays. Why? Because it’s an approach that has no external rules to follow—no time of day after which you shouldn’t eat, no foods that are bad or off-limits. The only guidelines that are required to eat intuitively are the ones that come from inside you—your own body, mind, and feelings. It’s all about making peace with food and taking care of yourself in a more layered and comprehensive way. (Of course, this is way easier said than done, and for many people it requires quite a bit of mental and emotional effort, especially if you have a history of disordered eating.)
This may sound a little woo-woo—especially because we’re constantly being told that we have to listen to external cues when figuring out what to eat—but I can tell you from my experience as a dietitian that it’s a strategy that has helped people have more peaceful relationships with food in lots of different circumstances. During the holidays, these external cues are at an all-time high. We see the flood of articles, lists of tips, and TV segments talking about how to eat “right” during the holidays: “Swap this for that,” “Go for a run during the day to make space for later,” “Eat salad before heading to that gathering.” It honestly feels like it’s endless.
I want to guide you through an alternative strategy that doesn’t involve restrictions, rules, or regulations on food. There’s no need to approach the holidays (or really any time of the year) with an all-or-nothing mentality. Special diets and complete food overhauls are likely to lead to frustration and feelings of defeat because they’re so hard to maintain over time. Here are four practical tips to keep in mind if you want to eat more intuitively during the holidays.
1. Remember that emotional hunger is a thing and it’s valid.
This goes back to tapping into internal versus external rules when it comes to food. During the holidays there’s so much pressure to restrict or overeat, without much thought about how you’re feeling, either emotionally or in your body. Being able to identify what hunger, fullness, and satisfaction feel like for you can help make eating feel less fraught. If your body is telling you that it wants to eat dessert even though you’re no longer physically hungry—which tends to happen a lot during the holidays—it’s okay to trust that message. There are no set rules, and ultimately you get to decide what satisfaction looks like in that moment.
Also, what you decide to eat at that moment doesn’t reflect what you’re going to be eating at the next meal or for the next year. Food is intimately connected with family, culture, and traditions, and sometimes it’s not as simple as stopping eating because you “ate enough.” Having a slice of grandma’s pumpkin pie, knowing that you’re physically satisfied, can help bring you emotional satisfaction. Emotional hunger is valid too, especially during the holidays.
2. Set some gentle boundaries with loved ones.
Just like it’s okay to say yes, it’s also okay to say no. Do you have that auntie who offers you more food every five minutes? Or that cousin who doesn’t shut up about how little you eat? There’s so much pushiness at the dinner table around the holidays, and you may feel pressured to eat when you truly don’t want to. I totally understand that your loved ones may take on this approach because food is their way of showing love. You can acknowledge that and respond with kindness and compassion. For example, “Thank you so much for making that pie. You know how much I love your cooking, and I feel so satisfied from all the great food you’ve prepared. Is it okay if I pack some to go so I can enjoy it tomorrow?”
The same concept applies to unwanted conversations about your eating habits or weight. We all have that family member who comments about how much weight you’ve gained or lost, or gives unsolicited nutrition advice. This can affect how you enjoy and experience food during the holidays. You can set boundaries by redirecting the conversation: “I would love to hear about how you’re doing. How is the job going?” You can also try being direct (although that’s not comfortable for some people): “I would prefer for you not to comment on my weight or food choices. Let’s talk about something else.”
3. Fasting (or barely eating) so you can eat more later is a trap.
In my experience working with clients, eating less during the day so you can “make room” for the big meal later usually doesn’t go so well. What tends to happen when you restrict is that you eventually go HAM (pun intended) on whatever it was that you were restricting, and then the guilt starts to creep in. In order to make the guilt go away, you try to compensate for all the “damage” you’ve done by working out more than usual, eating salads, or straight-up stressing out. It’s a pretty unpleasant cycle to be caught up in.
This compensatory approach takes away from your ability to tune in to what your body truly needs at any given moment. Wake up on Thanksgiving and want to go for a run? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with working out during the holiday season, but put some thought into whether you’re doing it because you think you have to pay the price for the food you’re going to eat or because it makes you feel good.
On those special days, eat as you normally would, and then enjoy your gatherings by eating some more. Arriving to your Thanksgiving dinner ready to eat the entire turkey because you’ve been starving yourself all day is a recipe for disaster. It doesn’t feel good, and you’re likely to enjoy that meal so much more if you’re feeling comfortably hungry (versus ravenous). If you’re eating salads all day because you know there won’t be any greens served later on, consider bringing a shareable vegetable dish with you that adds balance.
4. Bonus year-round tip: Be mindful of the food-related messages you’re constantly bombarded with throughout the year.
During the holiday season, it’s easy to spot how pervasive and obnoxious diet culture messaging can be—there’s so much information about what to eat, what not to eat, swap this for that, and the list goes on. But these don’t just pop up during the holidays. These kinds of rules and food messages are constantly circulating around us and can negatively impact our relationship to food. Try to be mindful of this throughout the year. If you go with food decisions that you see as health-related, like skipping dessert or swapping mashed potatoes for cauliflower mash, giving it deeper thought can help you identify if this is really working for you. Are you doing it because you’re afraid of these foods, or are you doing it because you truly think this makes the most sense for you?
Ultimately, whatever you end up eating this holiday season, remember that the holidays are just a few days out of the year. Went HAM (had to say it again) on the mashed potatoes and gravy? It’s all good. How you ate during the holidays doesn’t have to define how you’re going to eat for the rest of the year. Move on, and use each holiday season as an opportunity to connect more with your body and your loved ones.
As a registered dietitian/nutritionist and certified diabetes educator, Wendy is passionate about educating communities on plant-based eating in ways that are accessible and culturally relevant. She is the coauthor of 28-Day Plant-Powered Health Reboot, the cohost of the Food Heaven Podcast, and the cofounder of Food Heaven Made Easy, an online platform that provides resources on living a healthy, balanced life. She regularly partners with national brands like Quaker, Sunsweet, Blue Diamond Almonds, and the Blueberry Council to create delicious recipes and curated multimedia content. When not working on creative projects, Wendy also provides nutritional counseling and diabetes management to clients in a clinical setting. She uses an integrative and individualized approach toward nutrition, health, and well-being. Follow Food Heaven on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.