The holidays use to be a stressful time for me around food. I love the holiday food scene. I love all the seasonal recipes, all the different food traditions, all the different flavors and textures and gatherings around food. I love it all.
Everyone’s relationship to holiday food is different. For me, it wasn’t so much of being afraid to eat these foods. It was the stress of feeling out of control around holiday food. Here’s how it would go…
There would be so much delicious food surrounding me 24/7. I enjoyed eating these foods, but the food was more than just food. There was intense morality tied to these foods. If I was eating a cookie, thoughts such as “this isn’t healthy, you shouldn’t be eating it” would run through my mind. Sometimes the thought was, “make sure you run tomorrow so you can balance out this indulgent food you’re eating.” And then the all too common, “this food only comes around once a year so eat as much of it as you can…then you can get back to healthy eating in the new year because this food won’t be around.”
I’ve also experienced physical restriction with food so I understand that side of the coin too. But around the holidays, for me it was mainly about mental and emotional restriction from these highly palatable foods. While on the one hand I was giving myself permission to eat them, that permission was cloaked in judgment. And that led to unwrapping pandora’s box when it came to navigating the holiday food scene.
Because any form of restriction, be it physical (as in restricting calories) or mental/emotional restriction in which you tell yourself you can’t have a particular food or you judge yourself for eating a particular food….this will always lead to feeling crazy around food. Because your body is smart and it’s evolutionary survival mechanism in your brain will start firing when it senses restriction in any form. This drives you to eat because your body thinks its survival is threatened. This make perfect biological sense.
I know what it’s like to feel stressed out around food during the holidays. I also know what it’s like to feel stressed out about when you’ll get that workout in. And thank God, I also have waded my way through to the other side and gotten to experience the sweet freedom and calm of feeling in control around food during the holidays. And that feeling of control has freed me up to be present, enjoy being with with family and friends and actually rest + relax during this season.
We are all on our own journeys. We won’t instantly arrive at this peaceful utopia with food and our bodies tomorrow. That’s okay. It’s okay to be right where you are. Just like it’s easy to compare your food and exercise habits with someone, it’s also easy to compare where you are in your intuitive eating journey with where someone else is in their journey. You are paving your own path. So while I hope the words that follow help you enjoy the holidays with more freedom and less stress, know there is no expectation. Be where you are, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. No matter how tiny that step might be. Persistence over progress.
1. practice visualization
What has been helpful for me in the past (and still now) is envisioning how I wanted to feel and act around food and my family + friends during the holidays. When I say that, I don’t necessarily mean, “I want to feel calm and happy.” I mean really think about how you’ll feel and what thoughts will go through your mind. How will you engage in conversation? How will you taste and experience food? I envision myself feeling calm as I eat a piece of pie, putting down my plate in between bites because I’m in a meaningful conversation with my grandma and food is less important. I envision my belly and how it will feel after eating…how I’ll feel satisfied and maybe slightly full, but happy and not sick. I envision waking up in the morning, calm and rested and not thinking about when I’ll go on a run, but instead what my mom and I will spend the day doing. Go through this exercise with that much detail. Mental practice can be almost as effective, if not just as effective as real life experiences.
2. come up with three to five positive mantras
Diet talk is rampant during the holidays. It’s unavoidable. And while it is highly annoying and potentially triggering, we get to choose how we interact with diet culture during this season. Everything we read or hear is not truth. Every thought that goes through your mind is not a fact. You are not a sponge. Come up with some mantras you can repeat to yourself when a negative thought enters your mind. Can you observe that thought and decide how to respond instead of immediately believing it to be true? A simple saying that resonates with me is, “that does not serve me.” So if someone talks about food being unhealthy or about how they ran to burn off calories or how they aren’t eating certain foods this holiday season…I can say to myself, “that does not serve me” to redirect my mind to thoughts and things that help me live a better life. Another mantra I’ve found helpful is, “food is just food” because it helps me disconnect from the morality that so often gets tied to food. Whatever resonates with you, choose some mantras and write them down. Repeat them to yourself daily. Put up boundaries around what you choose to engage with.
3. focus your time and energy on people
Your mind can only focus on so many things at once. Sometimes it can be helpful to put your energy into engaging with the people around you. If you struggle with restricting food, conversation with others can be a healthy distraction so you are able to drown out the noise in your head and nourish yourself. Sometimes focusing on spending time with people and participating in conversation can be helpful in creating space so you can respond to food instead of react. Perhaps taking some pauses to talk gives you the space you need to realize when you’re full or when you’re satisfied or when your tastebuds are bored of a particular food. Engaging with people and conversation can also serve as a reminder that the holidays are not only about the food. There are much more important and meaningful things to focus your energy on.
4. realize it’s okay to feel a little too full
Intuitive eating is not an eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full philosophy. That’s called a diet. There is so much more that goes into intuitive food choices. Sometimes we eat for an experience rather than physical hunger. And that is okay. That is healthy. The holidays are a perfect example of a time when we will sometimes eat for the experience and pleasure of foods instead of purely physical hunger. And while we try our best to listen to our bodies so we don’t end up feeling physically sick, sometimes the experience and pleasure of food will cause us to overshoot our hunger. Feeling overly full is not the end of the world. It does not mean you instantly gained weight. It does not make you less valuable or worthy. It’s a temporary sensation your body can manage with it’s digestive system. Your body is well equipped to deal with fullness.
5. give yourself permission
This isn’t a one and done thing. You might need to give yourself permission every day or at every meal or continually. Maybe that’s a positive mantra you use…”I give myself permission to experience this food” or “I give myself permission to move my body out of freedom instead of fear.” Give yourself permission to eat foods without judgment. This is hard. Really, really, really hard. I hear you and I know. But keep doing it. Keep giving yourself permission to eat any and all foods in any and all amounts at any and all times. Over time it will click and it will take root in your heart and in your mind.
Be gentle with yourself. This isn’t a race or a competition.
These are just a handful of tools that might be helpful for you. If you have other suggestions that have been helpful for you in navigating a peaceful relationship with food and your body during the holidays, please share in the comments!
emily vardy says
I usually find the whole Christmas season pretty stressy, what with so many family dinners and food-centric events. It’s nice as I get better at the recovery thing that I can focus less on the food stress and more on the people around me. Everything you wrote here is super helpful!
Hey Robyn! Maybe you’ve addressed this in another post but did you take a break from exercise in your intuitive eating journey to help break the “I have to exercise” mindset? I feel like it’s needed for me mentally but I have a hard time doing this because I never worked out hard or long. I feel like I’m using trying to get in tune with my body as an excuse to be lazy…but because of that feeling is why I feel I really need the break. It’s a vicious confusing cycle in my head!!
Hey Jazz! I hope you don’t mind me responding to your comment, but I wanted to share my experience 🙂 Taking a break from exercise was the best thing I ever did. It really gave me the space to notice what made my body feel good and what didn’t. I’ve taken a few breaks, all at least a month long. It was VERY hard, don’t get me wrong, but I am way less stressed about working out. Now, I actually think of it as my “play time” or “recess” which means my workouts look a lot different now than they did when I was obsessively exercising. And no, I didn’t “blow up”. I actually found I was much more loving towards my body….
All that is to say, YES you should absolutely take a break. It’s also a great opportunity to find other ways to expend that energy or use your mind/body in a different way. Good luck!
Hi Jazz! I think it totally depends on what is helpful for you.
This post might be helpful! https://www.thereallife-rd.com/2017/06/healthy-movement/
I think a break from exercise can never hurt! So maybe give it a go 🙂
“intuitive eating is not an eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full philosophy. That’s called a diet. There is so much more that goes into intuitive food choices. Sometimes we eat for an experience rather than physical hunger. And that is okay. That is healthy. ” YES!! I love this, and this post!
<3 Happy Thanksgiving!
“Be gentle with yourself.” <3 love that. One of my favorite quotes is “be gentle with yourself. You’re doing the best you can,” and this applies in all areas of my life: school, relationships, intuitive eating, self-care. I Always remind myself that I am the master of my life and my feelings. No one else can ruin the holidays for me, so I choose joy and love over obsessing and worrying. Thank you for sharing, and Happy Thanksgiving!
“You’re doing the best you can.” We need that on repeat. Grace is endless!
Thanks for sharing what helps you Julianne!
Katherine H. says
You nailed it with this post, Robyn. Thank you! I was just reflecting on how disparate the emotions around holidays can be — on one hand, an opportunity to relax, celebrate with family, embrace peace, and enjoy the wonderful sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the season. On the other hand — an enormous sense of fear and stress caused by seasonal food, during what would ideally be a joyful time of year.
I was just thinking how I wish I could get back to my childhood self sometimes at the holidays — the one who waited anxiously for the bread stuffing to be done and to have a second helping of pumpkin pie with whipped cream, while revelling in the pleasure of seeing family that I don’t get to see at other times of the year and getting dressed up to attend those holiday functions. Your tools will certainly help get back into that mindset untroubled by calorie counts and the looming spectre of “getting fat.”
Come January, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to deal with the flip side of this season — the obsessive resolutions, cleanses, and diet mania that the New Year brings!
It is such a dichotomous situation! Thank you for pointing that out Katherine
I love the picture you have illustrated here with being like a child around the holidays – that sounds so freeing how you write it.
I’m writing down your suggestion for a further blog post in the new year 🙂
Wonderful, Robyn! Look forward to your upcoming posts. Happy thanksgiving!
Amber @ Bloom Nutrition Therapy says
These are so good! I love your mantra about how to deal with “diet talk”. I have a very similar one where I say, “Good for them, but not for me.” It reminds me that just because others are making choices for themselves, I can make a different choice for me and one does not have to have anything to do with the other.
I also love your conversation here about how feeling full or past fullness is normal during the holidays. I just wrote a similar post about how eating more than usual during a holiday meal is not a binge eating episode, because it’s NORMAL to do so.
Thanks for all these great tips!
I think realizing that you can set boundaries for yourself is huge!
Thanks for sharing Amber!
In regards to mantras- something i say to myself when my ‘dieting brain’ wants to calculate the calories of the meal i just ate or am about to eat etc is ‘I’m not playing this game with you’. I say it loud in my head and repeat it if necessary until diet/ restriction thoughts go away! It has really helped 🙂
I love that Bee! Saying outwardly that you are not even engaging with the ED is so powerful. Thanks for sharing. Happy Thanksgiving 🙂
Emily Swanson says
I love your advice about filling your head with the right kind of talk and your encouragement that it doesn’t have to be all about the food. It’s also ok to feel full. 🙂 Once I got to the point of being ok with that, holidays and the yummy food became so much more freeing.
Agreed Emily 🙂
Megan @ A Continual Feast Blog says
These are such great practical tips. Thank you! The holidays are 1000% better for me now that I don’t stress about calories, but I still find myself getting annoyed at diet culture and/or when people make comments about having to “work off” their dinner. Love your mantra of reminding yourself that “this does not serve me” and then moving on. Happy thanksgiving, Robyn!
It’ hard to to be annoyed, I totally get it. What has helped me is having empathy for people stuck in diet talk vs letting myself get annoyed. Happy Thanksgiving Megan 🙂
Hi Robyn! Thanks for your amazing article and wonderful advices! <3
I was wondering how do you know if you're really hungry or if you just have too much stress/ didn’t get enough sleep? I had anorexia and I still have trouble eating when I’m stressed out or very tired because I feel like it’s not "real" hunger and therefore I shouldn’t trust it…
I also heard that eating sugar increases your insulin levels, so I often don't let myself eat soon after a meal even if I’m hungry again because I'm afraid it might just be the insulin response to too much sugar… Do you think I should eat anyway? Sorry if it's confused, I know I tend to overanalyze everything but I'm really trying to get in touch with my hunger cues again.
Thank you so much, your blog has really helped me tremendously! Have a lovely day <3
Hi Amelie! It’s hard for me to give advice since I don’t know your history or current situation beyond your thoughtful comment and I would never want to do harm. I would really encourage you to work 1:1 with a non diet, eating disorder dietitian. It shouldn’t like doing some work around dismantling food beliefs might be helpful 🙂
Nicole @ Laughing My Abs Off says
Love your unique perspective on this, Robyn! I’ve been reading quite a few of these holiday stress managing blog posts lately, and I really like how yours can extend to not just food but many many things that often can weigh on the mind when in an uncomfortable situation. “You are not a sponge.” <– You know, I actually like thinking of people as sponges. In the sense that we can absorb what we need and squeeze out all the excess unnecessary stuff. 🙂
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