November doesn’t just mark the beginning of cooler weather and Thanksgiving celebrations; it also signals the arrival of “healthy eating” advice. The advice that reveals a slew of secrets on how to avoid gaining weight during the holidays, what to do when faced with a buffet and, as Self magazine puts it, “how to dodge holiday diet traps.”
The underlying (or blatant) message of this advice is that there’s a danger of gaining tons of pounds during the holidays, and you better run or hide from food because you simply can’t handle yourself.
We’re taught that we should fear food and weight gain. We’re warned against enjoying food too much: If you’re going to “indulge,” do so in little itty bitty quantities.
Since this advice is seriously everywhere, I asked Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, clinical social workers and authors of the fantastic book The Diet Survivor’s Handbook, to offer some sane advice on navigating the healthy eating tips and tricks.
(BTW, I highly recommend their book, especially for the holiday season, since New Year’s resolutions are right around the corner. And dieting is a big one.)
Q: In November, inevitably we’ll be inundated with advice on how to eat healthy during the holidays and how to prevent the supposedly whopping weight gain. I think all of this advice just makes people more and more anxious about eating and actually enjoying the holidays. What do you think is the impact of this advice on readers?
A: We live in a culture that normalizes the obsession with food, weight and dieting. As you point out, when the holiday season rolls around, the media – especially women’s magazines – gives advice to readers about what to eat, what not to eat, how to get thinner or how to avoid weight gain. This advice is offered as the way to take good care of yourself, but it actually backfires on many levels.
For many people who are seeing family from out of town, there is anxiety about whether they’ll be seen as “too fat.” All of these holiday articles about food and weight during this season just feed into that anxiety. It’s a shame that the focus becomes on whether you’ll be thin enough to be acceptable, rather than on the pleasure of seeing your family.
Of course, family celebrations can also be fraught with dynamics that create anxiety – sometimes focusing on weight is a way to avoid the “real” issues. Under these circumstances, the magazine tips support the idea that if you can just lose weight, everything will be okay. However, getting in touch with your true feelings and figuring out strategies to deal with family situations is much more helpful than diverting yourself with diet talk.
If you do try to follow the advice to eat less of whatever their latest recommendation is, and to worry about your body size, you will pay the price. Focusing on food and your weight means you are less present at holiday gatherings. Eating less than you need or depriving yourself of favorite holiday foods set you up this time of year – as it does throughout the year – to binge at a later time. It’s not uncommon for people to be “good” while with their family, only to find themselves overeating when they return home or are once again by themselves.
Q: How do you recommend people navigate all these eating tips and tricks?
A: Although this may seem obvious, the best way to navigate these tips and tricks is to avoid reading them! Instead, do your utmost to check in with yourself as you approach the holiday season. What went well for you last year? What were your triggers? What has helped you with those triggers in the past? After all, you are your own best expert!
If you do choose to look at some of the advice, remember that there are no “tricks” when it comes to your hunger and satisfaction. When you read a tip, ask yourself what is the intention behind it? If it focuses on weight loss through some sort of manipulation of your food, it is a diet tip – and diets do not work!
If it is a tip that makes sense to you – and does not create anxiety – you can experiment with it. However, stay conscious of how it makes you feel as you implement the tip; if you notice any increase around the obsession with food and weight, let it go.
At the risk of this sounding like yet another “tip,” your goal is to do what you try to do all year long as an attuned/intuitive eater: eat when you are hungry, eat what you are hungry for, and stop when you feel satisfied.
Whatever strategies work for you to stay mindful and compassionate with yourself day in and day out, are the exact same strategies to use during the holiday season.
Q: There are many experts out there who espouse pretty restrictive and rigid advice. How can readers tell when they’re reading truly healthy advice?
A: First and foremost, if the purpose of the advice is for weight loss, then it’s a diet in disguise. Remember that these types of food restrictions set you up to feel deprived, which usually triggers overeating. Just because advice includes “healthy” foods, doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for you.
If you read advice that requires you be constantly vigilant and “in control,” then that advice does not support a healthy relationship with food. Advice that is truly healthy should make you feel that you are taking good care of yourself, and that you are in charge of your eating.
For example, let’s say you read about how fiber is healthful, keeping your digestive system functioning well. Based on that information, you may decide to increase your fiber by adding beans to your diet, or by switching to whole grain breads and/or pastas. As long as you feel that the change in your eating supports your physical well-being and keeps you feeling in charge of your eating, then it’s worth experimenting.
It’s your responsibility not to make those suggestions into your new, rigid rules. You can choose brown rice much of the time because you believe it supports your health, and then still eat white rice just because you’re in the mood for it!
Decisions to follow more restrictive advice will also be affected by any conditions that you have, such as if you are lactose intolerant or have Celiac’s disease. In these cases, the decisions to give up dairy or gluten respectively come from a place of good caretaking and may be “healthy” for you, but would not apply to – or be “healthy” for – the general population.
We come back to the notion that you have the wisdom to know what is healthy for you. When you feel grounded in attuned eating – eating when you are hungry, eating what you are hungry for as you choose from a wide variety of foods, and stopping when satisfied, you are in a strong position to evaluate what nutritional advice makes sense for you to take, based on whether it leaves you feeling nourished and comfortable, or whether it leaves you feeling guilty and preoccupied.
Thank you so much, Judith and Ellen, for your insight! If you’d like to learn more, check out their Facebook page. Stay tuned this week for more holiday advice!
Also, I wanted to let you know that my great friend and fellow blogger Christie over at Honoring Health is offering a 4-week program on self-care skills for the holidays. Learn more about it here.
What do you think about all the healthy eating advice? Do you find it hard to enjoy the holidays because of it? How do you navigate the advice?