The holiday season is all about spending time with people you love while eating the foods you love: your dad’s lasagna, your best friend’s snickerdoodles and a little bit of everything on your aunt’s epic charcuterie board. And you should enjoy every bite of your favorite dishes and every sip of that festive cocktail without shame or guilt. ’Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry, after all.
But with so many social events and family gatherings between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, you may choose not to eat so decadently at every single one. Maybe, at one party, you gravitate toward lighter fare because you ate a big meal before you arrived. Perhaps you go for a second helping of maple-roasted Brussels sprouts — not because you’re depriving yourself of mashed potatoes, but because you’ve been craving vegetables. Or maybe you skip dessert at one celebration because you’re not in the mood for another Christmas cookie.
Sometimes, co-workers, friends and family may feel the need to make comments about what’s on — or not on — your plate: “Just have a piece of this chocolate babka. It’s not going to kill you!” “Not having any of the mac and cheese? Oh, you must be on a diet.”
Food-shaming comes in many forms. Just as no one should judge a person’s dessert choices, they shouldn’t comment when others abstain from certain foods, either.
“When people make negative comments about other people’s food choices, it’s often a direct reflection of their own insecurities,” Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and New York Times bestselling author of “Hanger Management,” told HuffPost. “It’s like holding up a mirror to all the insecure thoughts about their weight and eating choices percolating inside of them.”
Below, Albers and other experts explain how to respond to disapproving remarks from loved ones and how to deal with the food peer pressure that pops up around the holidays.
How To Respond To Snide Comments
It’s really no one else’s business what you’re eating at a party and why. But unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from chiming in with commentary as you’re chowing down on, say, a plate of plant-based fare — or, as your relatives like to call it, “rabbit food.”
Here are tips from experts to keep in mind next time you’re on the receiving end of one of those remarks.
Respond rather than react.
“It’s tempting to fire back something equally snide,” Albers said. “Instead, take a deep breath and evaluate their comment. Is their intention to hurt or is it coming from a well-intentioned place?”
You don’t have to spin an elaborate tale or make up some B.S. reason. Just get straight to the point.
“For instance, someone could say, ‘I actually don’t like stuffing,’” said Rachel Goldman, a clinical psychologist based in New York. “Or, ‘I’m eating what I want to eat and what I enjoy to eat.’”
If you have a food allergy or sensitivity, say so: “When I eat ice cream, I get a stomachache.”
“This can be really tough during a time of year when some of us experience heightened external scrutiny and oversight.”
But don’t feel like you have to justify your choices.
It’s fine to offer a firm but polite “No, thank you” or “I’m not in the mood for that.”
“You don’t owe anyone an explanation,” Albers said.
However, you can explain yourself if you feel like it.
Perhaps you’re making some healthier choices because your doctor recently told you to cut back on salt or you recently discovered you have certain food sensitivities.
“If the situation seems appropriate, you can share why you decided to make the food choices you made,” said Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietician and intuitive eating coach at Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. “Sometimes this will initiate helpful and even insightful conversation!”
Brush it off.
If what they said upset you or made you uncomfortable, know you can ignore it and walk away if you need to cool down. Otherwise, you can briefly acknowledge their comment and then change the subject.
“Have a list of neutral conversation-starters ready to go if you know food and weight is traditionally is a tense topic over your holiday meal,” Albers said.
And, of course, you can always just laugh it off if that’s more your style.
If it really bothers you, speak up.
Use an “I” statement to let the person know that their remark hurt your feelings.
For example: “When you made that comment about what I was eating, I felt very put on the spot and embarrassed,” Albers suggested.
How To Handle Food Peer Pressure
Food peer pressure runs rampant around the holidays. If you’re going to eat another slice of Aunt Rose’s pumpkin pie, it should be because you genuinely want another piece, and not because she won’t stop bugging you about it until you say yes.
Below, are some expert-backed tips you can use during the holiday season and beyond.
Plan for it ahead of time.
If you know certain family members have a habit of pressuring you to eat and drink more than you’re comfortable with, try coming up with some potential responses beforehand.
“It’s difficult not get upset when others comment on your food, eating behaviors, weight and body,” Goldman said. “But if we have a planned statement, it can be more matter-of-fact and hopefully won’t lead to getting upset and too emotional.”
Clarify your health goals, values and priorities.
Having a clear understanding of your reasons for eating the way you do will make it harder for you to be swayed by loved ones’ negative comments about what’s on your plate, said Torri Efron, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist who specializes in eating disorders.
“If you truly believe what you are doing is what is best for you, you can share that with others while reminding them that is it your body and your choice what goes into it,” she added.
Check in with your body regularly.
Rumsey encourages her clients to get in tune with how the sensations of hunger, fullness and craving feel in their bodies. Over time, they can learn to respond to those cues without worrying about input from others.
“This can be really tough during a time of year when some of us experience heightened external scrutiny and oversight,” she said. “Despite everything that is going on, remember to check in with your body and honor what you need even if others don’t understand or agree.”
Be a good role model.
Nobody likes the food police. If you want others to honor your food-related decisions, model good behavior by not making remarks about what others are eating, either.
“Don’t criticize anyone else’s food choices,” said Albers. “Focus on your own plate and actions. Hopefully, your positive food comment karma will rub off on others.”
Be gentle with yourself.
The holidays can be super stressful, so practice extra self-compassion this time of year. When you’re already feeling overwhelmed, it’s easier for those little unnecessary comments to get under your skin.
“Acknowledge where you are struggling or dealing with uncomfortable situations,” Rumsey said. “And lastly, remember that this time of year can be tough for many people. Whatever you are dealing with, you are not alone!”
When ‘Healthy’ Eating Becomes Unhealthy
It’s possible for seemingly healthy eating habits to become harmful if taken to the extreme. So it’s important to know which red flags to look out for that could indicate your dedication to eating healthy has turned into an all-consuming, potentially dangerous obsession with food and/or weight.
You refuse to be flexible with your eating around the holidays (and other special occasions).
It’s nearly impossible to stick to your normal eating routine during the holiday season — something that people with a healthy, balanced attitude toward food understand.
So if you’re constantly turning down many of the foods offered at social events because you don’t consider them “safe” options or you try to get around this by bringing your own meals to such gatherings, those may be signs that you’re being overly rigid in your approach.
You avoid social functions where food is served altogether.
If you’ve been withdrawing from your social life, particularly dinners, parties or other events involving food, that could be cause for concern, experts say.
You experience extreme guilt or anxiety after eating something you deem “unhealthy.”
When we deviate from a certain health goal of ours, we might temporarily be disappointed, but the feeling usually passes quickly. However, if you beat yourself up over perceived “slip-ups,” you may be struggling with disordered eating.
“If this crosses over into anxiety that you cannot stop thinking about, you may have ventured to the unhealthy side of healthy,” Efron said. “Each meal is a fresh start to make choices that feel good to you, rather than feeling like you need to compensate for previous meals by altering your current meal.”
You eliminate entire food groups from your diet.
Unless there’s a medical, religious or ethical reason for doing so, cutting out entire food groups could be a warning sign of disordered eating.
Orthorexia is a type of eating disorder (though not yet an official clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM) in which a person has an unhealthy obsession with healthy foods and is fixated on eating “clean” to the point that it interferes with their social life, as well as their physical and mental health. They may eliminate an increasing number of food types — e.g. all sugar, all meat, all dairy or all gluten — while also eschewing anything that isn’t 100% “pure” in their mind (organic, free of artificial flavors, etc.).
If any of the above sounds familiar, reach out to a professional such as a therapist, dietician or physician for help.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.