The holidays can be hard for everyone, especially for those who are going through eating disorder recovery.
Is there a way to enjoy holiday treats without overindulging? Is overindulging the same thing as binging? Is it restricting if I say “no” to a dessert that I really don’t want? How do we make sense of this?
In my work with individuals recovery from eating disorders, every single one of them has mentioned struggling with this delicate balance.
Here are 5 Coping with Holiday Food Guilt:
- Pause. Take a moment to mindfully + objectively think about what you have consumed for the past few days, and how those foods made you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally. Resist the urge to place judgement on what you ate or didn’t eat. Simply observe. Focus on your behaviors, and how those behaviors made you feel physically and emotionally. Ex. “I had 2 cookies at the holiday party yesterday and felt good physically and emotionally. But today when I binged on the fudge alone in my kitchen, I felt sick to my stomach. I also felt confused, ashamed, and frustrated.” Once you identify specific events with food (and how those events made you feel) you can take take inventory on what worked and what didn’t work. This will help you make choices out of self-care in the future. Ex. “With this reflection in mind, I have evidence that I can enjoy mindfully and intuitively enjoy holiday desserts, as I did at the party. I will continue to allow myself to have desserts when I desire them, especially in social settings. Next time I have fudge, it may be a good idea to put some on a plate or in a bowl, rather than standing alone in my kitchen eating it. I know from the past that I tend to eat quickly and rapidly when I am standing up, which often leaves me feeling overly full and distressed. Next time I have fudge, I will do my best to tune into my physical and emotional needs.”
- Establish healthy boundaries. Decide which desserts you love, and which ones you could live without. Do your grandma’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies make your mouth water? Are cinnamon rolls apart of your Christmas morning celebration? Enjoy those things. Is your co-worker’s homemade peanut butter cookie just mediocre? Do you secretly despise eating your aunt’s fruit cake? Are you eating those mini-chocolate candies because you genuinely want them, or because you are bored? It’s okay to say yes, but it’s also okay to say no.
- Understand the difference between overindulging and binge-eating. There is big difference between overindulging and binge-eating. To overindulge is to eat one (or two, or three) too many sweets on a certain night or at a certain occasion. People often over-indulge at holiday parties and holiday gatherings. The food is rich and the company is good. After the outing, you may feel more full than normal, and you may realize that you ate “too much”. Binge-eating, on the other hand, is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food (often quickly and to the point of discomfort), a feeling of loss of control during a binge, and experiencing shame, distress, or guilt afterwards.¹ This is tricky because individuals who have restrictive eating disorders may feel guilt and/or shame after eating just one or two holiday cookies. However, this is not a binge. Binging is uncontrolled, rapid, and often done in secret. It’s eating a larger amount of food than the average person during a given period of time, and feeling completely out of control during that process. Most people that I talk to think that they have gone on a large binge, when really, they have either eaten a normal amount or may have had one too many cookies. Our bodies are smart; there is always grace and provision available for us to “reset” when our bodies when they are telling us that we need to.
- Resist the urge to jump on the “morning after diet”. Imagine you wake up one morning and bake a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies. The smell of the cookies in the oven makes your mouth water. The cookies turned out perfect, and your coffee just finished brewing. However, you can’t have the cookies. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. You can’t even have one small bite, because you aren’t allowed to. There is too much risk associated with those cookies. So, what do you spend the next few days doing? You obsess over the cookies that you so desperately crave, yet cannot have. Not because of any medical condition, not because you have an allergy, and not because you cannot afford them. Physically, you have the green light to enjoy that sweet cookie; but psychologically, you cannot have one. You fear the weight gain that it could cause, the calories, the fat, the sugar…and the power that it has over you. The cookie has the potential to ruin your day, and you can’t take that risk. You can’t be “bad” again.
This sort of black and white thinking is eerily similar to dieting and disordered eating. And what does the research tell us? It tells us that dieting doesn’t work. Yo-yo dieting leads to one of two things: disordered eating or weight gain. Dieting and disordered eating are essentially one in the same. They both don’t work, and they both leave us worse off than when we started.
Coping with Holiday food guilt can be tough. Give yourself grace and practicing self-compassion for where you’re at and who you are today. Be gentle with yourself, and remind yourself that your relationship with food is a journey, not a destination to be reached.