Holiday meals, like the holidays themselves, are supposed to be fun and relaxed, a time to enjoy with friends and family. But what happens when you, like lots of us, have major anxiety about balancing your usual diet with enjoying your seasonal faves? In a perfect world, eating would never be associated with guilt, and the holidays would be experienced purely as a joyful time of year. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world of rigid ideals and cultural expectations for bodies, and tons of messaging how how to lose weight or keep it off. Every holiday season I see clients struggling with anxiety and guilt about food. Let’s face it: The holidays are about food and drink almost as much as they are about giving gifts, Christmas trees, and lighting the menorah. Eating and drinking more or richer food than you usually do is bound to happen, and that’s OK. But feeling bad and anxious it feels, well, bad. It’s just not productive and also, you don’t deserve it. You need a plan, and I have your back. Not a diet or food plan, mind you. It's more of a mental health plan where food comes into play.
Here are my top four tips for managing the holiday season—and daily life year-round, to he honest—with minimal food anxiety. (Of course if you can’t seem to get a handle on your food anxiety or it’s showing up in your life in constant or intrusive ways, you should check in with an R.D. and/or a mental health professional, both of whom are equipped to help people with disordered eating.)
1. Try to let go of food rules (preferably forever but at the very least just for this season).
The the hallmark of a this mindset is that either you’re on a diet or off one, you’re being “good” or “bad,” and once you’ve “slipped,” all your efforts to practice moderation and enjoyment have failed. May as well punish yourself now either with restricting calories even more or by eating and drinking way past the point of fullness and enjoyment.
Nah, don't do that.
Let go of that all-or-nothing thinking by accepting that during the holidays you’re going to eat food you enjoy—food that you probably don’t have an opportunity to eat the rest of the year—and that when the holiday season is over, you'll transition back in your everyday non-holiday season way of eating. We're not meant to eat the same exact diet way day in and day out; the foods we eat and the amounts we eat them in change along with the seasons, our bodies' needs, our cravings, our emotions and stress levels, and yes, the ebb and flow of holidays.
I find that clients who have an all-or-nothing mentality go into the holidays with strict plans to not give into temptation (the “nothing” part of the equation) and when that rigidity and avoidance of the stuff they really want to eat inevitably doesn’t pan out, they go the “all” route (after all, denying yourself stuff you want just makes you more likely binge on it later) and eat and drink far more than they enjoy, which increases their feelings of food guilt and makes it that much harder for them to get back to their baseline of non-holiday life and eating. No one deserves to be forced onto the rollercoaster of deprivation and guilt. If you can free yourself from the all-or-nothing mindset, you can avoid that rollercoaster altogether.
2. Distance yourself from people who make you feel bad about your body.
As far as I'm concerned, the best course of action when it comes to spending time around someone who's going to make you feel stressed or triggered is, whenever possible, to avoid that toxic situation in the first place. But of course that’s not always possible during the holidays. We might have to spend an entire afternoon and evening with Aunt Martha, who can’t help but make comments about your weight. If you must be around a person who thinks it’s OK to make intrusive observations about you, consider setting boundaries with them up front by telling them directly that you won’t discuss your body or your diet (or whatever it is they want to comment on). I’ve also found that a direct "that’s none of your business" works wonders, but of course the brutally frank route isn't easy for everyone and also doesn't always feel appropriate. You can also try to change the subject of the conversation, directing it away from you.
We can't always choose who's at our holiday events, but we can choose to put in place steps toward self-care that will help keep us whole in sticky situations. Make a plan to take deep breaths, excuse yourself from the table for a moment alone, or talk a walk so you can text a friend who gets it. And again, if you can, avoid situations that will feel emotionally unsafe—sometimes the best choice is to save yourself by preemptively removing yourself from the situation altogether. It's called self-care, and you’re worth it.
3. Food and food anxiety take center stage at the holidays, so ramp up your self-care accordingly.
In my experience, food anxiety is like any other kind of anxiety—the more you take care of yourself overall, your anxiety, no matter which form it takes, becomes easier to manage. Schedule some time for yourself before your calendar gets too busy. If for you, like for me, your exercise routine is part of your mental health care, keep your workouts in the rotation. If you get overwhelmed with events and parties and celebrations, take a look at all the invites and figure out which ones you don't need to say "yes" to. Remember, you don't need to go to every event you get invited to. Of course we don't want to let people down, but trust me when I say that whoever is throwing the party will certainly get over it if you can't make it, especially if you're one of many invitees. Being overwhelmed with life can lead to mood disruption and increased anxiety levels, so keep yourself balanced by normalizing your schedule in any way possible.
4. Give yourself permission to not count calories or macros.
The season is meant to be enjoyed, so let go of diet behaviors and rules (and while you’re at it, consider letting them go all year round). The more you feel like you’re "on a diet," the more you’re likely to rebel against it and then feel guilt and shame when you do eat something you think is "off limits."
I don’t agree for the most part with counting calories anyhow, but especially during the holidays, crunching calories and carb numbers can be frustrating and take the joy out of food. When you concentrate more on your own hunger cues and the enjoyment you’re getting from the food you’re eating and the holiday experience, I think it makes for happier, less anxious eating.
The holidays are a stressful time of year, even more so if you have anxiety about food and eating. But with a few simple action steps, we can, at the very least, make a dent in the worst of the anxiety.