Letting Go of Holiday Food Guilt
Kitty Finklea, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Thanksgiving weekend celebrations mean more free time with family and friends, eating leftovers, watching football, and decorating for Christmas if your decorations aren’t already up! Another aspect of the holidays for many people is food guilt, and a 2020 survey showed 63% wrestle with guilt for what they eat and drink during the holiday season.
Food guilt is that dreadful feeling of being “bad” after eating too much food or foods considered decadent or unhealthy. Food guilt also leads to shame and disgust and can result in anxiety, depression, feeling like a failure, and the “I’ve already blown it, might as well keep eating whatever” mindset. If preoccupation with food and weight steals your joy for the holiday season and life in general, this can be a sign of disordered eating or an eating disorder.
Diet mentality is a prime culprit for causing food guilt and shame in modern society, with added pressure around the holidays. Diet culture is an oppressive belief system equating thinness with health and morality and categorizing food and food habits as good or bad. Social media often enhances this belief by promoting a certain way of eating and using shame or fear to discourage any other method. This may come across in thoughts or conversations like:
“Should you be eating that?”
“Are you really taking a second helping?”
“I ate too much and will have to work this off tomorrow.”
“I’ve been bad this holiday season and will have to be good again in January.”
Avoiding the misery of shame and guilt around food requires a shift in mindset to focus on managing overall health instead of weight loss, a perfect body, or perfect eating habits. We are all individuals, and finding what works best for our bodies means exploring this new mindset as opposed to bingeing and restricting food. Research shows focusing on health instead of weight also improves mental health and quality of life with less stress, which means happier and more memorable holidays with loved ones!
Food is also more than just calories, fuel, or nutrients. While we need fuel and nutrients for health, we also need the emotional aspect of enjoyment, pleasure, and memory-making for mental health. Food is part of culture, tradition, celebration, and a method to connect with others. Becoming more mindful of hunger, fullness, taste, texture, and how your body feels during and after eating is an overall health benefit that lasts not only during the holidays but for a lifetime. And while overeating is part of holiday traditions, it doesn’t have to be a daily occurrence. Each meal or snack is an opportunity to be more mindful.
How do you start making this transition without feeling out of control? First, begin to honor hunger and fullness by planning and consuming regular meals and snacks to help regulate intake and emotions. Create a balanced meal plan with protein, carbohydrates, and fat from whole foods and include other foods you enjoy, even if they’re not labeled “healthy.” Developing an overall regular routine of meals and snacks that is easy to go back to after holiday events is important. While food is not good or bad, including whole food options of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes is important for physical health, and mixing in other foods you enjoy and love is important for mental health. Taking the “forbidden” label off these foods means they’re allowed, which ultimately decreases cravings for these foods. This habit also helps you build trust in yourself and your body.
Next, become more aware of hunger and fullness signals. Physical hunger can increase anxiety, and prolonged physical hunger can make anxiety and depression worse, harder to manage, and increase the tendency to binge. Physical hunger can also override common sense and lead to mindless overeating with guilt and shameful feelings afterward. Instead of arriving at a holiday party ravenous, eat a snack before heading out to help make more mindful decisions at the event.
Begin to taste every bite through mindfulness by tuning into your body. Be aware of taste, texture, and fullness by slowing down and focusing on how food feels in your mouth and body. Eating without distractions such as screens, books, or driving can also help increase awareness of taste and fullness signals. Filling a plate and sitting to eat instead of standing at a holiday table of food and grazing, or waiting and tuning into fullness feelings before taking any second helpings of food are also mindful strategies.
Instead of eating fast to “get rid of the evidence” of a “bad” food, take the time to truly enjoy a cookie, piece of pie, or grandma’s cooking. While your mouth never gets tired of tasting, your body will let you know by signaling feelings of fullness and satisfaction. Learn to routinely stop eating when full and satisfied instead of stuffed and uncomfortable. If you’re used to eating until stuffed, tuning in helps you learn when to stop. Observe your feelings and analyze behaviors without judgment! And if it’s a time of celebration, indulging, and eating until stuffed is okay. Instead of obsessing about feeling guilty or shameful and restricting afterward, acknowledge those feelings and go back to your normal routine at the next meal or snack.
Make a plan for dealing with negative social media messaging and any snarky comments from family or friends. Unplug or unsubscribe from accounts and ignore, confront, or walk away from conversations trying to make you feel bad about food.
You’re in charge of what and how much you eat, and working on inner thoughts, feelings, and messaging can change your narrative around food from diet culture to food freedom. Cheers to a mindful and delicious holiday season!