5 Tips for Handling Food Stress During the Holidays

Table full of meats, cheeses, and fruit.

This year has been a challenge for many of us that are dealing with, working through, and attempting to regulate our eating habits. Our routines were disrupted, our support systems separated, and our relationship with food altered. 2020 or not, the holidays always come at the end of the year and provide an increase in stress for those of us still trying to navigate how additional access to more food can impact how we view it and ourselves. For some, this time of year could mean more food that reminds you of family and culture, and for others, it may mean the resurgence of shame around intake.

For myself, I have always dealt with issues around food, growing up in lower socio-economic family limited the types and quality of food I typically ingested and growing up fat meant the conversation often was centered around fatness as a negative and thinness as desirable. As I’ve gotten older, I have been afforded the education and time to better understand the situation surrounding my food usage growing up and also what has become a little more helpful in my journey toward positive eating.

Not everyone has the same story I do but perhaps some of my tips you’ll find helpful for your journey. Maybe this year there will be less direct curiosity about your weight or eating habits but it doesn’t erase years of the shame built around the holidays. Whether you are safely spending time with family or taking in these holidays from afar, here are 5 tips to handle stress eating during the holidays.

Tip 1: Say it with me “there is no such thing as bad food”

The only thing unhealthy about food is that we like to label them “good” or “bad”. Yes, there are some foods that may be higher in fat, for example, but fat shouldn’t (and in my book, isn’t) a bad word! Nutritional food should be factored in but it doesn’t mean food with less nutritional value should carry shame and make you feel bad for wanting it. You need fats and carbs and calories, stop telling yourself you don’t. For Christmas, maybe I try not to just eat mac and cheese but that’s what I want, it’s what helps feed my soul and therefore it cannot be bad. I’ll trickle in some broccoli, bread, turkey, and top it with a brownie.

If you are alone these holidays and looking to cook for yourself (or order out) know that you can eat what you need, and that need may be different from what a celebrity is telling you to eat. You want to feel balanced AND you want to eat food that will give me energy and happiness, there is no wrong in that.

Tip 2: Trust that your food journey isn’t linear

With bigger meals coming up, it’s easy to compromise other meals in order to feel like you are balancing out your intake but instead, you are really just pushing yourself further into a spiral of food confusion! For me, every time I approach holiday eating by not eating to prepare, I tend to then overeat once I do have access to food. I fill myself up, ignore all sensations to stop, allowing for the guilt and shame to creep in. From there I spend more time trying to manage my guilt and shame by skipping more meals, working out, or just giving up on trying to understand my relationship with food.

Avoid this cycle! If you overeat, it’s okay, don’t try to overcompensate and do not feel bad, let those shame feelings wash away. Instead, get a good night’s rest, wake up and eat breakfast to begin your day right, and proceed on a “typical” day of food ingestion. Not every day will look the same, that’s okay.

Tip 3: Be realistic and throw the rules out the window

Every year I get excited to hit the reset button on New Years’, thus eliminating all the baggage of the year before! *sigh* What I’ve learned time and time again is that a new year doesn’t mean things are changing or that my relationship with food has gotten better, it certainly doesn’t erase the food I ingested during the holidays.

Don’t get caught up in just the symbolism of the new year, do have a conversation with yourself about how you feel. It’s okay to set New Year resolutions and to have goals in mind but we have to be realistic with ourselves, trust our instincts, and find new ways to explore how food works for you. If you find yourself feeling emotional during the holidays and food becoming a comfort, that’s okay and completely normal. Don’t restrict yourself from feeling comforted and know that one meal is not representative of every meal you’ll have forever, there are no rules here.

Tip 4: Say no to diet culture

I’ll start by saying that for me “diet” can be a triggering word. Diet can mean restrictions, harsh goals, and using the numbers on a scale to define your happiness. But it’s a term I’m hoping to adapt to more positivity in my life. “Diet”, according to dictionary.com, also means “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats”. It’s not all bad in that your diet doesn’t have to be an internal restriction but instead referring to the food you consume, in and out of routines.

It starts to get bad when food gets placed on a desirability scale, weighed by celebrities or influencers, and given to us distorted and misleading. Diet culture is so damaging and has changed how we view our food and ultimately, how we view ourselves. We have to stop shaming ourselves for enjoying a cookie and stop believing everything we see on social media – heck even our parents, siblings, or friends have the wrong ideas at times, but it always comes back to how you view food. For my journey, an introduction to intuitive or mindful eating has helped me overcome some of my internal negative dialogue around eating. Lauren Strapagiel, Buzzfeed, says “eating intuitively means taking into account hunger, fullness, and satisfaction, which means that no matter what you eat or why, you’ve done nothing ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’”

The only thing you need to detox this year is your social media account, remove those 

that perpetuate diet culture or provide unrealistic expectations for how you should be and feel.

Tip 5: Pinpoint your support system

Now more than ever, we need to put in the work to find our support system, even if that person is halfway across the country. If you are at home for the holidays (or quarantined at home and it just happens to be the holidays) your support system should be representative of what you need, even if that doesn’t look like a family member, reach out to a friend and update them on how you’re feeling. Your support system could also look like tools and resources, online or in the community. For example, maybe you take a walk when things get a tad bit overwhelming with family, listen to a podcast to escape for a little bit, or seek professional help.

Additionally, if you’re expecting conversations to arise around food or your weight during the holidays, try making a list of conversation no-nos or responses on how to change the subject. For example, “I feel uncomfortable when you ask about what I am eating, do you mind not asking?” or “I feel bad about myself when you make comments about my weight, please find something else to discuss” could be ways to respond to comments that are too much.

The holidays are always stressful and this year may look different for many of us but try to take everything, including your relationship with food, in stride. Food is good so don’t let shame and guilt convince you otherwise!

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at (800) 931-2237.

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