How to Reduce Food Anxiety Over the Holidays

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If you're worrying about how you'll manage yourself around food over the holidays, you're not alone! This time of year is very stressful for many people even for those who don't have the added complication of a dysfunctional relationship with food! It's a busy time, with a lot going on socially. It's expensive. There are expectations. And then there are all the family dynamics. For many, it's a tricky navigation.

My whole approach is very much weight neutral, and I work within a Health At Every Size (#HAES) framework. My goal is not to help people lose weight, because what I've learned over the years is that intentional weight loss through restriction and over-exercise, rarely works long term. In fact 95% of people who try this, regain the weight, and the majority gain more. My goal is to help people find peace with food and their bodies, regardless of where their weight naturally settles.

However, I am going to talk a little about the weight - though not in an attempt to help you avoid gaining it - rather to illustrate my point.

The intention of this blog is to give you 5 pointers to help you radically reduce your anxiety around food and eating over the holidays.

1. Expect to Overeat

Did you know that 'normal' eaters gain on average 1 pound over the holidays, whereas 'overweight' and obese people typically experience a significantly higher weight gain (around 5 lbs or so)? Why do you think that is?

It's because 'normal' eaters don't have food rules. They know it's a holiday period.

They expect to eat a bit more than normal. They expect to drink a bit more than normal.

They do not make themselves feel guilty or ashamed about their food choices.

They don't see themselves as good or bad, depending on what they eat, and they don't restrict
afterwards! They just eat again when they're next hungry! They don't think 'I'm eating it all now so it's out of the way.' They don't say to themselves, 'I'm eating it all now because tomorrow/ on Monday I'll be good/ start my diet/ do a New Year detox.'

They don't do any of that.

They just eat again when they're hungry.

And they'll eat what they fancy when they're next hungry. That might be leftover potatoes and gravy. It might be Christmas pud. It might be a sandwich. Or a salad. Or a mince pie.

It'll be whatever they fancy.

So why do you think the 'overweight'/obese people usually gain significantly more than 1 lb?

The most likely reason is that this cohort of people has a history of trying to manipulate and control their weight through restriction (aka dieting). Having ever dieted is a very strong predictor of future weight gain. A Finnish twin study, involving 2000 sets of twins published in 2011, showed that the dieting twin was 2-3 times more likely to become 'overweight' than the non-dieting twin. Dieting itself, independent of genetics, increases the likelihood of weight gain.

With a history of dieting, trying to control their weight and fighting with food and their own bodies, this group of people is not relaxed around food. They still try to control it and themselves around it. They fear food. And they don't trust themselves around it.

They worry about what they ate... that it was too much. That it was too much of the 'wrong' thing. That they can't be trusted around that food. That they have to 'get rid of it' by eating it all now, so that they can 'be good' or 'start over' tomorrow... etc). They feel guilty and ashamed about eating - so they do it in secret - usually stuffing it in quickly before anyone notices - not even tasting it - and certainly not enjoying it... all of this keeps the cycle of binge eating and compulsive overeating going.

So... remind yourself: it's the holidays! There is more food and drink around than normal. There's more socialising with food, than normal. For many, there's more stress than normal too!

Expect that you will eat more than you usually might... just like a 'normal' eater would.

Which leads me to the second point:

2. Give Yourself Unconditional Permission to Eat

Drop the Food Rules

Food rules are ideas in your head about what, when and how much you should eat. They are internalised messages which come from external rules: any diets you've followed will have had rules; many authors on health and 'healthy eating' will tell you how you 'should' eat. And, boy, there are so many of them - often conflicting

Food rules get in the way of you knowing whether you're hungry; whether you feel like eating this particular thing; whether you LIKE it - if it gives you pleasure; if your body feels good when you eat it; if it energises you or makes you feel lethargic...

If your mind is on the rule book, you won't be able to tune in.

And if you don't tune in, you're likely to end up dissatisfied. You'll either be full of something you didn't enjoy, but that matched a food rule, and end up eating the thing you wanted all along anyway with the consequence of being stuffed - or overstuffed; ...or you'll just feel miserable, because you won't allow yourself anything that goes against the food rules. And that's likely to end in a sense of deprivation - which triggers rebellious eating at some point down the line. Hello binge ;)

Food rules incorporate categories of foods as good or bad. Grandma's trifle is bad, Brussels sprouts are good. Stuffing is bad, turkey is good (as long as its white...). While it's true that foods have different nutritional components, no food is all good or all bad. Did you know that brassicas contain cyanide! The poison is in the dose, says Marc David.

The categorisation of foods as good or bad sets up a phenomenon known as 'forbidden foods.' If something is bad, you surely shouldn't have it, and should avoid it at all costs. Not only that, we attach moral judgements to these foods - think about all the ways that 'forbidden foods' are described in the diet world: sins, legal foods, cheats, guilty foods, decadent foods, mortal sins, naughties, baddies, indulgences, etc.

When something is forbidden its desirability increases massively! Just say no to a two year old, and you'll know all about that!

So, drop the food rules like a hot potato! Everything is allowed, any time!

Let Yourself Eat Exactly What You Want

If you allow yourself to eat exactly what you want, and stop eating it when you're satisfied or when you stop enjoying it, you will eat in a moderate way. You won't crave what you didn't have (because you had it!). You're therefore much less likely to binge or to be overstuffed. Your mind won't be plagued with thoughts about the food and you'll be able to move on with your day.

Something that's helpful to remember - you don't always have to know exactly what you want to eat. The thing is if you DO know, honour that! Have it. If you don't know what you want, and you're hungry, then just go for something you know you enjoy, and that matches your level of hunger.

No Conditions Means NO Conditions!

Unconditional permission to eat - means - unconditional.

I'll spell it out for you because it's not an easy concept to grasp. It goes against years of diet-based conditioning. What it means is that you don't attach conditions to your permission to eat.

  • You don't attach time-based conditions: e.g. 'I'll only eat this until Christmas/New Year/ Hanukkah is over. Then I'll rein myself in.'
  • You don't attach quantity-based conditions: e.g. 'I'll only have [insert number] mince pieces/ roast potatoes etc.'
  • You don't attach weight-based conditions: e.g. 'I'll eat what I want provided that I don't go over x [kilos/lbs/stone]. When I hit that mark, I'll rein myself in.' (By the way, please don't weigh yourself!)

When you attach conditions, you invite in the rebel; the part of you that doesn't want to be told what to do! Hello binge ;) ...

3. Don't Restrict or Over-Exercise to Compensate

binge eating and overeating. So does over-exercise. Restriction looks like:
  • calorie restriction
  • restriction of food groups or types of foods
  • the food rules I spoke about above are ways to restrict
  • thinking about restricting: even if you're not physically restricting, thinking about what you should or should not eat is STILL RESTRICTION. It's mental restriction and I promise you, it's just as harmful as physical restriction. If you feel guilt or shame for having eaten something, that's a clue that you have some mental restriction going on.

So please please please...

  • do not restrict calories or carbs or whatever before your festive period or festive meal - it'll make you really hungry and unable to tune in; it'll mean you'll be unable to be moderate, and it'll probably mean you'll then feel guilty and try to restrict again afterwards... which will simply keep the cycle going!
  • if this needs repeating - also don't restrict afterwards, for the same reason!
  • do not exercise excessively before or after your festive period! Exercise for pleasure. Exercise in a way that makes you feel good! Exercise in a way that adds to your life - rather than leaves you feeling depleted. Don't do it to compensate for eating! This simply keeps the cycle going.

4. Eat Mindfully

Savour and Enjoy!

With all the worry about the food, we often by-pass enjoying it! This year, make it your intention to enjoy every bite you put into your mouth. You're eating it - so why not actually enjoy it?

Did you know that when you're enjoying your food you metabolise it better? When you're in a stressed state, your cortisol levels will elevate. This is one of the hormones that is triggered in the 'fight or flight' response. Cortisol reduces metabolism (because your body is preparing to fight or flee) and signals the body to store fat (in case it's needed for an energy burst later).

However, enjoyment and pleasure cannot coexist with high cortisol levels (the stress hormone). So relax! Enjoy your food. Slow down. Taste each bite. You'll metabolise it better and eating slowly with enjoyment often results in being satisfied with less food... Not that the goal is to eat less - the goal is to eat with attunement to your bodily signals. That means, most of the time eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're comfortably full and satisfied; eating with flexibility - so you eat what both your body and mind want.

The BASICS of mindful eating (according to Lynn Rossy - author of The Mindful Eating Solution) are:

Take a few breaths. Check in with your belly. How hungry are you? How much food do you think will be enough to get you to a point of comfortable fullness?

Assess your food. Look at it! Really look at it! The colours, the textures. Notice the aroma. Assess if it's what you actually want to eat (don't make this question too complicated for yourself though!).

Eating slowly gives you more enjoyment of whatever you're eating. It also enables you to register if you're still enjoying the food. When you're no longer enjoying it, that's a signal to stop, knowing you can have more whenever you want!

Investigate your hunger, satisfaction and enjoyment throughout your meal. Stopping half way to take a few breaths and check in with your fullness levels is helpful!

Thorough chewing provides more enjoyment and better digestion. It also helps you to slow down and gauge your satisfaction levels.

Allow yourself to be present for the experience of eating! Taste it - notice all the different taste sensations as you eat. Allow yourself to be truly satisfied with what you're eating.

5. Be Good to Yourself, No Matter What

It comes to this:

Feeling guilty or ashamed about what you're eating, what you ate, how much of it you ate, whether you've exercised or not, or the shape of your body will not serve you. It will not help you to change your behaviour. The most likely outcome is eating even more to suppress those yucky feelings.
Hating or loathing yourself and/or your body is NOT MOTIVATING! It does the opposite.

So whatever happens, choose self-compassion. Choose kindness.

It's a choice.

It's not something that happens as a result of behaving the way you think you should, or even the way you want to.

It happens because you choose it.

And when you choose to be kind and compassionate towards yourself, you're more likely to treat yourself well; to get on your own side; to advocate for yourself; to create and then honour healthy boundaries with others. You're more likely to accept and honour your emotions and you're more likely to listen to what you need.

And you are worth all of that!

I wish you a peaceful, mindful, free and relaxing time with food and in your body, this holiday season Vania xxx

If you want to gift yourself with support on this journey to making peace with food and your body, there's still time to book a free Discovery Session before Christmas. I'm raising my fees on January 1st - so now is a good time!