Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States**, and that’s pretty much synonymous with FOOD. Homemade turkey dressing, pumpkin pie, and Grandma’s oatmeal rolls equal happy tummies in the OHD household. The only thing better is eating pie for breakfast the next day.
**Note: For the purposes of this article I’m limiting my focus to the ways we tend to talk about food and our bodies during the holidays. I do not mean to minimize the fact that Thanksgiving, at its core, is a celebration of the genocide of First Nations and Native American peoples. You can read about this from the perspective of several Native Americans here.
Unfortunately, there’s something else that comes along with all this wonderful food. Across the country, people labor over this magnificent feast. Then we serve it up to our gathered loved ones with a big fat steaming pile of body guilt. There’s really no better way to ruin a perfectly good meal, is there?
Because this is the time of year that we start promising ourselves…
Starting on January 1st I’m going to be good.
And we all know what that means.
Good means “watching what you eat”, eating “healthy” or “clean”, going on a diet. It means working out to “earn” your dessert, then working out some more because you consumed “too many” calories. Good means substituting an apple for chocolate cake and sticking to arbitrary and restrictive rules like not eating after 8 pm.
But for now? For now, you get to be bad. Because it’s the holidays, right?
Oh, you’ll probably go into each meal promising yourself that you’ll be good. You’ll just have some turkey and salad, then treat yourself with a little sliver of pie (no whip because OMG calories). But then you’re there and everything smells so wonderful and suddenly you. can’t. stop. eating. And to assuage your guilt, you promise yourself: January 1st. You cheerfully tell everyone within earshot “I’m being so bad today! But I’m starting a new diet after the holidays, so I might as well get it all in now!”
What’s wrong with this picture?!
What’s wrong with diet culture during the holidays… and the rest of the year, too.
1. Fear of scarcity makes you feel out of control around food.
Have you ever noticed that when you keep a food around and available all the time it becomes less attractive? You only really tend to crave the things that you don’t have ready access to.
By setting a cut-off date for your ability to eat whatever you want, you’re making it more likely that you’ll eat more than you actually want. And you’re probably even eating things you don’t actually care about that much because it’s there and you’re not even going to have the possibility of eating it later.
But what if you knew you could eat anything you want at any time?
If you tell yourself that you can have any of this food at any time you take away the urgency to consume ALL THE THINGS RIGHT NOW (which just makes you feel tired and bloated). If you give yourself permission to enjoy the foods you want when you’re hungry and listen closely to what your body is telling you it wants, you’re going to walk away a lot more satisfied.
2. You’re equating the way you eat with your moral status.
I know this isn’t actually what you mean to do, but dig deep here and ask yourself: What do you feel about yourself when you eat that giant slice of chocolate pecan pie?
When you label some foods as “good” and others “bad”, you’re telling yourself and everyone else around you that eating a certain way makes you a bad person. As if chocolate pecan pie is a murder weapon.
I mean… it could be if you’re allergic to nuts. But you get my point.
And I’m pretty sure no god anywhere has ever said: “Thou shalt not eat carbs.”
3. You’re fighting a losing battle.
Research has shown again and again that diets don’t work.
On top of that our bodies are actually made to hold on to weight during the winter.
Like other animals, the human body naturally changes to create an insulin-resistant state. This helps our system be more fuel-efficient and go for long periods of time with a smaller amount of food. – Betul Hatipoglu, MD
Of course, many of us don’t have to worry about food scarcity during the winter anymore. There’s so much food available in this world that it’s pretty disgusting that anyone has to go hungry. But I’m getting off track, here.
Most people in the health industry (including Dr. Hatipoglu herself) suggest you combat your biological tendency to gain weight during the winter by “watching what you eat” (usually through a diet or some other restrictive food rules) and exercising. This implies that it’s bad to gain weight. Plus, remember from #1 (fear of scarcity = out of control) that when you restrict you’re more likely to overeat.
So what if you don’t go to war with your body this holiday season? What do you think that would look like?
4. You’re probably making someone else feel like crap.
When you share your guilt with everyone else at the table (humans love to bond over guilt), your words are almost certainly affecting someone else.
Maybe your cousin is recovering from an eating disorder. Your kids are definitely listening, primed and ready to develop their very own disordered eating habits and a bad relationship with exercise. And your best friend probably now wonders what you think of them because if your average-sized ass “needs” to lose weight, what about their much heavier self?
No, you really don’t mean to be an asshole. You’re actually just thinking about yourself. And no, you’re not ultimately responsible for other’s thoughts and actions. But do you really want to be that kind of person?
You can’t know who you’re triggering, but you can be conscientious of what you say. It’s respectful of those around you and it’s better for your mental health, too!
So here are my guidelines for enjoying a holiday meal. Without the guilt.
1. Food is food.
Food is not good or bad, and you are not good or bad for eating it. What you eat is not who you are.
2. Pie is delicious. Eat pie.
In fact, eat pie first so you don’t have to worry about saving room.
3. You can eat whatever you want whenever you want.
Don’t stuff yourself to bursting because you’re only “allowed” to eat whatever you want during this one meal.
4. You’re allowed to gain weight.
Yeah, I get that buying bigger pants can be a pain. But it’s a lot easier than beating yourself up over something you can’t control.
5. Wear roomy pants.
Nothing makes a good holiday dinner more satisfying than being able to relax in comfort afterward. And nothing can ruin it faster than feeling completely uncomfortable because your jeans have zero wiggle room. I learned this rule from one of my best friends, who always wears what she calls her “steak dress” when she plans on eating a big meal. She’s definitely on to something.
6. Pay attention to when you’re hungry and when you’re full.
Instead of “watching what you eat”, just pay attention to what your body is telling you. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. And remember that it’s okay if you overeat a bit (by accident or on purpose). It doesn’t make you a bad person or a “failure”.
7. Stop focusing so much on what you’re eating and actually enjoy the company.
You most likely don’t see these people often. Laugh. Have fun. Be happy!
8. If the company doesn’t make you feel all warm and cozy inside you’re allowed to leave.
You are not obligated to stay in any situation that makes you uncomfortable. Your emotional and mental health is far more important than Uncle A-Hole’s opinion.
9. Please don’t tell me about your latest diet or weight loss.
There are so many things about you that are so much more interesting! I want to hear about your dogs and your family, and what you’ve been doing in your spare time. I want to hear about the books you’ve read and the TV shows you’re watching because George knows I need some good recommendations! This year I want to hear about and celebrate the things that really make you… YOU.
Wishing you peace, love, and freedom from holiday food guilt…