Holiday Eating: The Good, The Bad, The Scary!

 December 2011
Tracey L. Cornella-Carlson, MD

“I’M SO SCARED FOR THE HOLIDAYS!”   I’ll never forget the first time I heard those words.  I was certain something much more terrifying was going to happen than eating a meal.  Nevertheless, in a world of “good” food versus “bad” food, “healthy” versus “unhealthy,” the focus does tend to become the food and not the family and friends at the holidays.  Anxiety surrounding baking cookies or drinking regular hot chocolate (with marshmallows!)  – along with fear of getting too much candy in the stocking from Santa – truly sadden me and make me think what a tragedy it is that many of these supposedly grand, childhood memories and customs have been stolen by eating disorders.  How can we return the emphasis to connecting to others and obtaining  satisfaction via human relationships during these special times instead of emphasizing relationships with food?  I would propose that we encourage loved ones with (and without!) an eating disorder to feed the mind and spirit first, and the body will fall in sync.

In terms of mind – strive for flexibility and try to be reasonable about expectations during holidays. Be pleased with accomplishment of SOME of the “to do” list.  Be gentle with yourself and focus on what you were able to do in a day – and not on what you didn’t do. Learn to appreciate yourself. Be flexible in what you eat during the holidays and how you think about this.   Avoid extremes – no famine before or after the feast.  In other words, don’t skip meals in preparation for a holiday and don’t under-eat the day following a holiday if you believe you have eaten more than usual.  (Thank goodness we do still call that NORMAL eating, after all!)  Take a break from rigidity and self-inflicted criticism.  Set post-holiday, non- food   related goals. Get excited!  Dare to ignore those commercials regarding losing “the holiday pounds.”  There really is no law that says everyone gains weight over the holidays or that people should be dissatisfied with their bodies if they have developed different, temporary eating patterns while attending holiday parties, having company, etc.

In terms of spirit – prioritize — decide what you most enjoy doing during the holidays and make time for those things.  Be selfish and set limits – give yourself the gift of time.  Realize that stress is often created by the time you devote to making others happy.  Challenge yourself to let some things go.  Accept the things or family situations you cannot change…everyone has them.  Pull out your personal list of coping skills! Be grateful. Pay attention to lessons to be learned from people of all ages…the two-year-old who knows how to say “NO,” and the teenager who is wise enough to value time with friends.

In terms of body –“listen” to your body and remember how “easy” and natural eating was as a child– you ate when you were hungry, and you stopped when you were full. Trust your body and yourself — there do not have to be “good” foods and “bad” foods – attempt to erase that concept of calories from your mind and remind yourself that your body does know what to do with that food. Too much emphasis on trying to make “healthy” choices at holiday meals can actually add stress.   Some people have grown up with fallacies such as “if something tastes really good, then it is really bad for you.”  Desserts or sweets are “bad” or “naughties.” We really need to keep in mind a couple things–one, it’s okay to celebrate the holidays with food. Don’t be afraid to treat yourself to your holiday favorites, things that you can only have when your grandmother is in, or enjoy when they are in season. And two, you CAN enjoy your favorites as long as they are eaten in moderation. So, just like Midwestern weather – the “good” and the “bad” will surely change –but for now, enjoy this season!