It is common to feel stressed (or distressed) about food and exercise during celebrations, and this often peaks at winter holidays. Balanced You and our dietician partners at Public Health want to remind you to be gentle and kind to yourself. The winter holidays and the new year are a great time to take a hard look at our assumptions and judgments about food, exercise, and our bodies, and to learn more about Intuitive Eating and making peace with food.
Below are some key concepts to understanding how to build a positive and non-judgmental relationship with food. For an overview of Intuitive Eating, check out these 10 principles.
Understanding the restrict/binge cycle
Some folks may feel like holidays are the only times they are “allowed” to have certain foods that often get labeled as “junk” or “bad” foods. You may find yourself feeling an urge to eat as many of these forbidden foods as possible during holidays. Other folks may restrict access to these foods, telling themselves that they aren’t allowed to have them because of a diet, “lifestyle plan,” or other reasons. These are the two parts of the restrict-binge cycle, also known as the restriction pendulum.
It is important to understand that there are no “bad” foods. All foods can fit in your life. The act of forbidding yourself from eating certain foods or food groups will make these foods more appealing, which often leads to feeling out of control around these foods and then distressed after a binge. If you find yourself thinking “I can’t possibly have X food in the house because I will eat it all in one sitting!,” it is very likely that you have created some kind of rule about that food. Your body and brain are designed to protect you by guiding you toward food when it is scarce or when you are hungry. Although it seems counterintuitive at first, giving yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want, whenever you want will, over time, eliminate these feelings of helplessness or being out of control.
It’s okay to eat for reasons other than physical hunger
Know that you are allowed to eat for reasons other than physical hunger—food plays an incredibly important role in culture, community, pleasure, and joy.
During the winter holidays, you may receive messaging about “emotional eating.” You may also hear or have heard about mindful eating, the practice of paying attention to our food and focusing on sensations as we eat. Although it can be helpful for some people to think about how emotions affect their eating or to practice mindful awareness around how they feel while eating, these two labels can also lead to self-judgment and shame around food, especially if you have a history of dieting, food insecurity, or disordered eating.
It is important to not confuse mindful eating with restriction or rules around food. Sometimes, trying to eat mindfully turns into what registered dietitians call the “hunger and fullness diet.” This happens when you become overly focused on eating with awareness so that you can eat “correctly” and only eat until you are optimally full, and then stop.
It doesn’t matter whether your body is being physically deprived of the energy and nutrients it needs, or if your restrictions around food are mostly mental and emotional—both kinds of restriction affect hunger cues and feelings around food.
There is nothing wrong with eating any kind of food; however, if you want to feel satisfied and at peace with food, it is important to honor your body’s cues and desires. During the holidays, you can practice this and support others by:
- Not labeling foods as “good” or “bad”
- Honoring your cravings around food by giving your body and mind what they are asking for
- Offering yourself kindness and self-compassion if you feel uncomfortable after eating
- Redirect conversations about “good” or “bad” food, dieting, or body size. Say, “I’d prefer we didn’t talk about this. Let’s talk about [insert topic – sports, nature, music, art] instead.”
Stanford University professor Dr. Alia Crum found that when participants were told they were eating a “diet” milkshake with fewer calories, their reported satiety was lower and levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin remained flat, while those who were told they were consuming an “indulgent” milkshake with more calories reported higher satiety and levels of ghrelin dramatically declined. The two milkshakes actually had the same caloric and nutritional content.
This study shows how powerful our bodies and minds are. When we choose a “diet,” “low-calorie,” or “healthy” food option instead of the food we are really craving, we don’t feel as satisfied and we continue to feel hungry. If we give ourselves permission to eat the food that we are craving, or the more “indulgent” option, our hunger hormones will respond accordingly, and we will feel satisfied. Our bodies and minds are inextricably linked!
Be gentle on yourself to build body trust
No matter the time of year or the occasion, a peaceful, intuitive relationship with food and exercise is built upon self-compassion, self-love, and trust in your body. If you have dieted in your life, had an eating disorder or disordered eating, experienced food insecurity, or been shamed for how your body looks, you may find this time of year especially difficult, and it may feel nearly impossible to trust your hunger cues and cravings. That is okay. After living our whole lives in diet culture, this is a process.
No matter where you are in your relationship to food, exercise, and your body, you can practice self-compassion and self-love this holiday season by keeping the following affirmations and tools on hand:
- “It is understandable that this is hard for me. I am doing my best.”
- “I respect, honor, and love my body.”
- Take a break from stressful environments. If you are able, go to the restroom and give yourself 5-10 minutes to breathe, soothe, distract and regroup.
If you are unhappy with your relationship to food or think you may have disordered eating or an eating disorder, there are resources available to support you. The National Eating Disorders Association has a free online screening tool, a helpline, and many other resources to help you find support, including free and low-cost support.
This article was contributed by Lia Van Steeter, Child Mortality Prevention Program, Public Health – Seattle & King County