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How to Ditch Food Guilt and Feast in Peace

Don’t let diet culture steal your joy this holiday season.

Key points

  • The holidays often involve special foods, creating stress for those who struggle with eating or body image concerns.
  • Rejecting diet culture can help people feel calmer around holiday meals and support loved ones to enjoy their food without shame.
  • Challenge the idea that you have to earn a holiday meal or make up for it after punishing exercise or restrictive diets.
  • Set boundaries around diet talk, and remember that food is supposed to bring joy and pleasure.

The holiday season is upon us, and after such a tumultuous few years, many people are eager to gather with loved ones again finally. But holidays can also be a time of high stress. For those who have struggled with an eating disorder, disordered eating, or a history of chronic dieting, focusing on holiday meals can add an extra layer of difficulty.

Food, especially food that we only prepare on special occasions, is often laced with meaning. While it would be wonderful to enjoy these special foods and move on simply, we live in a diet culture, which surrounds us with messaging about “earning” that piece of pie and “working it off” the next day.

Diet culture refers to the mainstream belief system that instills stereotypes and biases about weight, health, and food. Diet culture harms all of us, but it’s especially harmful to individuals in larger bodies.

Like other aspects of culture, we often absorb these messages at the subconscious level. By identifying how it commonly shows up, you can make sure diet culture has no place at your holiday table this year.

Reject the idea that you have to earn food.

Diet culture tells us we’re “good” if we eat certain foods and “bad” if we eat others. This instills us with the idea that food has moral value, which then extends to ourselves. We call ourselves “good” for ordering a salad and “bad” for enjoying an ice cream sundae. While foods differ in their nutritional composition, we should be careful not to conflate nutritional value with moral value.

That means you don’t need to earn a more calorically-dense food by denying yourself dessert on the days leading up to the holiday meal. When we treat food as something to be earned or deserved, we set ourselves up to feel guilt or shame about our eating. Those negative feelings make it harder to recognize whether we’re hungry or full and whether we feel satisfied by what we just ate.

Remember that one meal, or even several meals, will not make or break your health in the long term. You don’t need to make rules like “no sweets today.” All that does is make sweets into an irresistible, forbidden food. When left to their own devices, our bodies naturally seek out variety over time. If you’ve ever eaten a lot of rich foods several days in a row and then woken up craving something lighter, you understand this natural desire for balance.

Trust that if you give yourself full permission to enjoy whatever foods appeal to you at each meal. Eventually, you will crave something different.

Eat and move as you normally would in the days before and after the holidays.

It may seem logical to prepare for a big holiday meal by eating less and intensifying your workouts during the days beforehand. However, our bodies are wiser than us. When we restrict our eating, we set ourselves up to binge and feel out of control when we finally loosen the reins.

Deprivation leads to compensation. If you don’t enjoy that painfully stuffed feeling after inhaling platefuls of holiday food, your best bet is to eliminate the deprivation that drives loss-of-control eating. That means giving your body as much food and as much variety of food as it needs to feel nourished and satisfied. That means moving when you crave activity and resting when sore or tired.

If you do end up eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness, try to give yourself compassion. Telling yourself, “whoops! I was enjoying that meal so much that I forgot to check in with my body’s signals,” can remind you that you’re just a human, and it’s natural to eat past fullness sometimes.

Instead of beating yourself up about it, focus on something else and let it pass. This feeling won’t last forever. Your body will digest the food, and life will go on. If you focus on trying to make up for it, you’ll be right back in the cycle of restricting and bingeing. If you simply show yourself compassion and move on, you’ll be in a much better mentality to identify hunger and fullness signals at your next meal.

Set boundaries around diet talk.

Nothing ruins the festivities like a judgmental comment. Even worse, diet talk is often contagious. It can feel like a bonding ritual to harp on everything everyone dislikes about their bodies or commiserate about how hard it is to stick to a diet. While it may be tempting to join in, you never know if you might be triggering someone in recovery from an eating disorder or setting up one of the children in the room to develop a disordered relationship with food. Plus, there are a billion more interesting topics than dieting and body criticism.

When a loved one says something negative about the food or weight, try setting a kind but firm boundary. For example:

A comment is made about how much someone is eating.

  • Boundary: "We’re each eating what our own unique bodies want and need."

A comment is made about the calories (or carbs, sugar, etc.)

  • Boundary: "Let’s focus on how delicious this food tastes."

A comment is made about “good” or “bad” food.

  • Boundary: "I don’t believe food has moral value. It’s not like that casserole robbed a bank!"

A comment is made about someone’s weight.

  • Boundary: "Let’s not talk about people’s body size."

Focus on the whole sensory experience of the meal.

If you’re stuck in your head, it’s hard to enjoy yourself. Set an intention to be present this holiday season by tuning into your five senses. Food can provide such a rich sensory experience, from the aromas of cooking to the colors on your plate to the flavors and textures of each bite.

As you’re eating, take in each of these sensory elements. How does the food look? How does it smell? How does it taste? Does the first bite land differently than the bite you take in the middle of the meal?

Remember, the goal is not to stop the moment you reach fullness and not a bite more. After all, eating is not just about hunger and fullness; food is supposed to bring us pleasure! When we allow ourselves actually to enjoy our food, we’re able to experience the emotional satisfaction involved, and this, in turn, can help us recognize when we’ve had enough.

You can also use this intention to be present with your loved ones. Notice when thoughts about calories or other worries enter your mind and come back to the people around you. What are they saying? Tune in. Look at the expressions on your loved ones’ faces. Feel the temperature in the room. This moment is the only one of its kind.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from the last two years, it’s that life is fleeting. Don’t let diet culture rob you of this moment.