It’s the holiday season, and for so many people that means stress, anxiety, and fear.
Stress from the hustle and bustle of crowded malls, shopping for presents, going to holiday parties, putting up decorations, and the like.
Anxiety about family gatherings and getting the gifts ‘right’.
And Fear. Fear of all things food.
I say fear of food because, well, food around the holidays always gets such a bad wrap.
Why do we feel that the holiday foods we love and that are filled with such nostalgia are so ‘bad’ for us?
I truly believe the stigmatized ideas we associate with holiday foods is multifaceted.
So first off, it’s important to actually acknowledge that we live in a highly-stigmatized, diet culture-ridden society that fears the idea of weight-gain. And therefore, the holiday season, and all of it’s goodies, scream WEIGHT GAIN!
And for all the diet-culture fiends, they believe that if you're engaging in a positive relationship with these ‘fat-heavy’, ‘carb-heavy’, delicious holiday goodies, well that can’t be ‘healthy'. So they would like to make you believe that you’ve sealed some sort of fate in gaining unwanted ‘holiday weight’. And then they will capitalize on getting you to buy diet books, exercise programs, and gym memberships in the new year to 'out-do' your 'bad behavior'.
Well guess what?
They're lying to you!
And let me further divulge about the comments I just made.
Fat is essential in giving your body energy, supporting cellular growth, absorbing nutrients, providing insulation/warmth for your body, and protecting your organs. So when a food is higher in dietary fat (whether unsaturated or saturated) it’s actually doing your body good. And consuming these foods helps promote optimal functioning of the body. So those holiday foods like creamy gravies, potatoes, casseroles, and the like, which are rich in fatty goodness? Well they are providing your body with the food it needs to properly function from the inside out.
Like fats, carbs (or carbohydrates) are so immensely critical for bodily functioning. A carbohydrates' main function is to provide the necessary energy your body needs to do ANYTHING. I repeat-ANYTHING. Literally in order to breathe, move, and have your organs function properly, your body needs carbohydrates. And if your body doesn’t have the energy it needs, one of two things start happen: (1) your body will start to feed off of itself (ie: muscle/organ breakdown); (2) your organs will stop responding when they need to because they haven’t been given the energy they need to operate (this is when you have abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, liver/kidney dysfunction, etc.) And if that’s not intense enough, your brain (which is the powerhouse of your body-quite literally), functions on carbohydrates most efficiently, so if your not feeding your brain with the carbohydrates it wants and needs you will start to (a) feel more lethargic; (b) experience more brain fog; (c) possibly have seizures, go into shock, and in some cases lead to death.
Oh, Santa Baby. If this isn't the curse-word in our society today. And why is that? Once, many years ago, there was the idea that one’s overall health came from a totality of many different facets of life. At this time, health was seen as the ideal biomarker and predictor of life expectancy. So by looking at one’s weight, height, physical activity patterns, etc. we were trying to predict whether someone was going to live longer or not. Well, honestly through time and research we realized that negated so many important aspects of health. We’ve learned through research, time, and experience that health is not only physical, but it’s also affected by one's spirituality, mental state/clarity, diagnosis of given medical conditions, amongst many other things.
Essentially the ideal thought process in terms of health is whether you are living a life in which you are functioning optimally (in all realms) to do all the things you want to do.
At least that’s how I define health. This takes into consideration the vast differences, uniqueness, and overall goals any given individual may have in regards to their life.
Okay, so with all that being said, let’s dive deeper into a compassionate look at the relationships we can have with food(s) and our bodies’ during the holiday season.
So if we know the baseline functionality of food, what prevents you from feeling freedom around the foods that you’re eating? What’s wrong with eating 5 cookies as opposed to 2? What’s wrong with skipping a workout for a few days, weeks, or months because you’re trying to be present with family members and enjoy the moments and memories that each new day/moment is bringing? And in all honesty, what’s wrong with gaining weight, really?
Many times it can be the recurring thoughts that either family, friends, peers, colleagues, and/or others have made in the past, or even the present, towards given foods/your body. These comments have therefore created a negative response you may feel in regards to food/your body. Did you know that research by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor showed that we only actually experience an emotional response for 90-seconds? Any additional time that we experience that emotion (in relation to a given trauma/event) is actually a cognitive choice we, as individuals', are making to stay in that emotional loop (response)?
So the longer that we allow ourselves to play the emotional record player in our heads about how our bodies are ‘wrong, unacceptable, too big/too small, too short/too tall’, the longer that we strengthen negative cognitive synapses in our brains to respond to food/our bodies/our self-worth negatively, and our perception of ourselves and our self-esteem suffers.
Second, our views towards food and our bodies seem to come from our idealized, stigmatized, fat-phobic, and diet culture ridden society. If you’re walking around thinking that your body is unacceptable because you have eaten ‘too much’ at a holiday meal, that you don’t deserve food because you are living in a body that society deems ‘unacceptable’ in comparison to all the fitspo dieters on Instagram, or that if food tastes too good it must be bad for you, well it’s probably time to challenge your current thought process and rewire the neurological synapses (responses) your having towards foods and restructure your mind towards food as food--nothing more and nothing less.
Lastly, I’ll open the door to start a conversation on weight gain. I mentioned previously, the idea of ‘Holiday’ weight gain. First of all, people overly dramatize weight gain during the holidays. 'You’ll gain 30 pounds if you eat Christmas Cookies everyday or have that extra scoop of Aunt Judy’s special corn casserole'.
Well that’s false.
Weight gain happens for a variety of reasons and many times weight gain can be found as the result of over-dieting, restriction, and binging in response to an intentional and unnecessary caloric deficit that's been held for too long (Honestly one day is too long). So I say all this not to empower ‘more willpower’ during the holiday season, but rather to empower more compassion on you right now, whether the holidays or not. It’s critical for us not to look at food as the enemy and weight gain as the worst possible outcome for us to ever experience. When we start to hold food and our bodies’ in a space filled with compassion, you start to release the somewhat ‘spiritual’ hold that food seems to have in your life. You will start to think about food less, you’ll start to engage more with others and in the interests you have, and your overall quality of life will increase exponentially.
Now I'd like to turn my attention to my friends in eating disorder recovery. It’s so important to realize the importance of weight restoration. But now, more than ever, is the perfect time to challenge your ED and eat in excess (or beyond what your mind has convinced you is your ‘fullness’ state). Break free of your mental barriers and enjoy the holidays with your family and friends. And know that any significant amount of weight you might gain is actually critical to the ideal functioning of your body and its systems.
That all being said, this is just the start of a series I want to explore with you all this holiday season. So over the next month of holiday festivities, I am going to continue to challenge you to respond to your natural and current learned emotional and cognitive responses to food and your body. My goal is always to make you feel empowered about your body and your relationship with food.
Food is meant to be enjoyed, not feared, especially during this time of year.
So much love for you friends!
Tess M Patterson MS RD LD