The Benefits of Intuitive Eating During the Holidays

A mindful approach to coping with disordered eating during a stressful season.

Posted Dec 22, 2020

Priscilla du Preeze/ Unsplash
Source: Priscilla du Preeze/ Unsplash

For most of us, the holiday season is filled with an added emphasis on food. Sharing large meals with family or friends, returning to comfort foods from childhood, or embarking on a decadent baking endeavor are all ways to celebrate during a season of gathering, even virtually.

But for those who struggle with disordered eating, this added emphasis on food can turn even small, distanced festivities into a minefield of triggers. This season corresponds with increased symptoms of anorexia nervosa, bulimia, body dysmorphia, binge-eating disorder and/or exercise compulsion, to name just a few.

(On top of the added pressure of holiday gatherings, the stress of the pandemic can further aggravate symptoms. One study shows that symptoms of eating disorders have increased across the board for people with anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorders since March 2020.)

With this in mind, it’s important to be open about how we can support ourselves and our loved ones who are struggling with food during the holidays. I often introduce the principles of intuitive eating, a therapeutic model developed by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, to young adult clients. This eating style promotes mindful awareness of hunger cues and satiety at its basis.

Before we get into its benefits, here are some common triggers that we see come up again and again for disordered eating during this time of year: 

1. Comments from others

Sometimes even well-meaning friends or family members will mention feeling "guilty" for eating certain foods, promoting a diet culture that’s especially triggering for those dealing with disordered eating. 

2. Typical narratives about New Year’s resolutions

Diet culture promotes resolutions as a way to stick to certain meal plans that might not be suitable for people struggling with body image or food, especially in a particularly stress-inducing season. 

3. The sheer abundance of food choices

The pressure to decide what to eat when there are a lot more choices than there usually are can be a trigger for people who get overwhelmed by feeling like they have to make the “right” choices about food. Once they feel like they’ve chosen wrong, feelings of guilt over food or portion choices can start to spiral. 

How Can Intuitive Eating help?

Intuitive eating is a mindful nutritional philosophy and a journey of discovery around health and food that has nothing to do with diets or meal plans. It's about teaching a person to get in touch with their body through cues like hunger and fullness, making choices around and about food that feel good and do not encompass judgment or influence from diet culture and learning to listen to your body’s own cues versus eternal “rules” or influences. In general, intuitive eating promotes balance, health, and wellness. 

Therapists and dietitians use principles of intuitive eating with their clients, sometimes through group mealtimes, to promote: eating for physical/enjoyment reasons over emotional reasons, relying on internal cues of hunger and satiety, and granting themselves unconditional permission to eat, instead of turning to restriction, binging/purging, or other disordered eating habits.

Coping Mechanisms

With this therapeutic model, there are a variety of support mechanisms to promote a peaceful relationship with food, including scheduling regular meals, practicing mindfulness, using scales to gauge hunger, and naming emotions as they arise to give them space apart from food. 

Young adults struggling with food can then carry these practices over to their own meals with families or friends, and repeat them independently during times of stress. With practice, people struggling with food issues can regain their internal hunger cues with greater ease. 

During the holidays, therapists or dietitians sometimes recommend planning ahead to prepare for gatherings around food. It can be helpful to create index cards with reminders of coping mechanisms to pull out (such as remembering to check-in with your hunger scale) during times of stress. 

Rejecting Diet Culture

Each individual coping with disordered eating needs a different approach to foster a positive relationship with food, but everyone can benefit from moving away from the diet culture that social media and media, in general, can promote. Many of the principles of intuitive eating touch on this, such as respecting your body as it is now, prizing nutrition over considering food "good" or "bad," and recognizing that everybody needs requisite calories, vitamins, and minerals to survive. 

It can be helpful to plan ahead for holiday gatherings and talk with friends and family members ahead of time to agree on topics that should be avoided — such as people’s weights, calories in certain foods, or what types of diets they’re trying. As an alternative to diet plans or self-punishment, intuitive eating guides people to make choices based on their own bodies after they’ve developed their own regular hunger cues in a supportive therapeutic or group setting. 

If you or a loved one feels like food is challenging during this season — you are far from alone. The commercial pressures of the holidays and diet culture are real, but by being aware of some basic practices of intuitive eating — like beginning to pay careful attention to your own hunger cues and planning ahead for regular and consistent meal times, you can find a better balance during a stressful season. If you're interested in learning more about intuitive eating, be sure to connect with providers who are trained in this treatment approach.

References

Early impact of COVID‐19 on individuals with self‐reported eating disorders: A survey of ~1,000 individuals in the United States and the Netherlands Jet D. Termorshuizen MSc - First published: 28 July 2020 - https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23353