Now is the time when women’s magazines crank out a slew of articles about the horror of overeating during the holidays, the tragedy of high-cal “sinful” foods and the shameful weight gain that will inevitably result.

Reputable health websites also add their two cents, churning out slideshows that offer lists like “Frighteningly Fattening Fall Foods.”

Some of this is hit-you-over-the-head bad advice. But other suggestions may be more subtle. What about articles that share supposedly healthier substitutions that you can make during the holiday season?

The problem with much of this advice is that we may internalize these messages and start to get concerned, very concerned, about our food. We may even start to feel guilty, ashamed or fearful about our food choices. (Because, unfortunately, a lot of this advice does truly incite fear.)

And we may worry that if left to our own devices, we’ll consume the entire holiday spread.

So to stop this from happening, we might think that we need to listen closely, very closely, to the above advice, and manipulate our eating.

But doing so can actually have the opposite effect (in addition to making us utterly miserable). As clinical social workers and authors Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel told me last year in an interview on Weightless:

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.

(Plus, we often think that weight loss or dieting will fix everything and make stressors like family conflict disappear. As Matz and Frankel said, “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.”)

But what if you like to check out the latest nutrition info, scour magazines for new recipes (if so, I’d suggest any of these excellent food blogs) or eat nutrient-rich food? How do you know if you’re reading truly helpful information?

Matz and Frankel shared their wisdom:

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.

Importantly, for some of us, any eating advice may be triggering (or make us feel like crap and taint the holiday spirit). According to Matz and Frankel, “Although this may seem obvious, the best way to navigate these tips and tricks is to avoid reading them!”

Here’s what you can do 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!”

And, lastly, they noted:

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.

My strategy, like Matz and Frankel recommended, is to simply ignore all of this advice. I read my favorite food blogs. But that’s it. I’d rather focus on enjoying the holidays, which includes spending time with my loved ones, decorating the house, shopping for small presents, and yes, also enjoying the delicious, holiday-inspired eats.

What do you think about the holiday eating advice from women’s magazines and health websites? 

By the way, you can learn more about Judith Matz here  and Ellen Frankel here.

“You Deserve Better” Giveaway

Last Friday, Sui from cynosure and I hosted a giveaway here on Weightless. Sui is generously giving away one of her “You Deserve Better” posters. And the winner is … Anna! Congrats!