Food is a loaded topic any time of year, but the holidays can take things to a whole new level. Specifically, there’s a lot of stress and shame around enjoying traditional holiday foods that are delicious and fun, but maybe not the most nutrient-dense. Articles about avoiding weight gain and overeating are common, and talk of food restriction before and after events is totally normalized.
This sucks for obvious reasons: It takes away from the joys of the season (parties, decorations, spending time with the people you love, etc.) and adds to the little stressors (planning parties, hanging decorations, spending time with the people you love, etc.).
A less obvious downside of all this holiday food anxiety is that it sets in motion a restrict-binge cycle that can be hard to find your way out of, even once the season is over. If thinking about food over the holidays makes you feel anxious, or if being around it makes you feel out of control, know that you’re not alone in feeling that way. The good news? It’s absolutely possible to change your relationship with food around the holidays, and in general.
First, know the difference between overeating and binging. Then reframe your mindset after it happens.
We can’t talk about the restrict-binge cycle without first talking about what it means to “binge.” Both the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual and the National Eating Disorders Association define binging as an episode when someone eats far more than usual in a discrete period of time and feels a lack of control over eating during the episode.
Binging is common and severe in people with certain eating disorders, but can also happen in people who don’t have a diagnosed eating disorder.
“Binging has that shameful component, like you’ve done something wrong,” said Anna Lutz, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based dietitian who specializes in eating disorders. “What a binge looks like is subjective in terms of how much a person eats. It’s about feeling out of control, and the guilt and shame that come afterward.”
On the other hand, overeating means eating more food than usual, without having strong negative feelings about it. It’s normal, and it’s something our bodies can handle.
“Our society wants us to think that if we eat more than our body needs, it will instantly lead to weight gain or bad health,” Lutz said. “That’s not accurate. Your body will be OK.”
This type of thinking can carry beyond the holidays and into the rest of our lives. Reframing the way you think about eating lots of food is a great first step to feeling more in control and creating a better relationship with food overall.
As Lutz mentioned, binging comes with a heavy dose of shame. Letting go of this shame and instead thinking of eating in more neutral terms can make it easier to sit with. Because, let’s be real: We all eat a lot sometimes, and it often doesn’t feel good.
One approach that can help you do this is instead of demonizing the feeling of fullness, just wait for it to pass.
“Tell yourself that you won’t feel like this forever,” Lutz said. “Sit with it. The anxiety will come down. The fullness will come down. Overeating is part of the holidays sometimes, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.”
Of course, if you binge more regularly than just the holidays and it’s affecting your daily life, it’s absolutely worth seeking help from a mental health professional. This could be part of an eating disorder, which is a very real illness that deserves compassion, care and treatment.
The pressure to avoid holiday eating often takes us in the opposite direction, which is actually unhealthy.
Although the “binge” half of the restrict-binge cycle is always pathologized, the “restrict” piece is too often ignored. Heck, sometimes it’s even lauded.
“If someone knows they’re going to a party, they might deliberately eat much less in the day or days leading up to it,” Lutz said. “That kind of diet culture thinking has become so commonplace that I don’t think we realize it’s restriction — it’s even applauded as healthy.”
Only, it’s not healthy. In fact, it’s a big part of the reason someone might feel out of control around food later on.
“Deprivation is linked to increased cravings and overeating,” said Marisa Moore, an Atlanta-based integrative and culinary dietitian.“If you don’t eat what you really want, odds are you will still have the craving and this might lead you to go overboard later or feel guilt around certain foods when you do eat them.”
This “going overboard” response has both physical and mental roots.
“When you physically restrict food, your body is physiologically set up to binge later [because you’re underfed],” Lutz said. “And, psychologically, just telling yourself that you can’t eat, or that a certain food is off-limits, makes you more likely to want it.” Food is a basic human need, so if you limit it, your brain will be hyper-focused on it until you get enough.
Moore also pointed out that a restriction can come from the type of food you eat, not just the quantity.
“Going for the non-fat whipped cream when it’s your favorite part of dessert may lead you to eat more in a search for the satisfaction that full-fat cream provides,” she said.
Making your favorite holiday foods off-limits, or telling yourself you can only eat a certain amount, will make you want them more, and might lead to you overeating other foods in search of satisfaction.
Instead, give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want.
The habit of releasing food guilt and eating whatever the hell you want is called mindful or intuitive eating. If you’ve been restricting or living by food rules for a long time, the idea of letting go of them can be scary. But, if you’re worried that letting yourself eat what you want will lead to overeating ― which it might! ― remember that not letting yourself eat what you want could have that same result, and with much more stress and shame attached.
“The holidays might seem like a scary season to try intuitive eating, but I think any time is a good time,” Lutz said. “If you’re someone who has restricted certain foods, particularly those common around the holidays, it’s predictable that you might eat a lot of them. You might feel out of control.”
Eventually, those foods will lose some of their luster, and you’ll be able to enjoy them without necessarily feeling overly full afterward.
This will take practice, and much of the work is about silencing the voices in your head telling you that certain foods are bad, or that you “shouldn’t” be eating something. But, there is one thing you can actively do to make the process easier: “Being [physically] nourished is so important to all of this,” Lutz said. “Focus on eating enough during the day, so that you’re not extremely hungry when you see these holiday foods that you’re afraid to overeat.”
And, if and when you do overeat, resist the urge to restrict or compensate afterward.
“The best way to get out of the cycle is to give yourself enough food,” Lutz said. “The next day, get up and eat breakfast. Then go about your day. Keep at it, and what you’ll find over time is that as you’re working on nourishing your body, the binges will decrease in frequency and quantity. But if you keep restricting, it’s like throwing fuel on the fire. It’s really predictable.”
If you do end up falling into old eating or thought patterns, cut yourself some slack.
The best thing you can do is to try to not let food guilt dominate your holiday season.
“Give yourself grace,” Moore said. “Know that you aren’t a bad person because you ate beyond fullness. Though it may take some time, you can get to a place where you’re able to just move on [from it].”
Feeling guilty about feeling guilty will make things that much more stressful —instead, focus on celebrating all the great things in your life with the people around you.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.