The holidays present plenty of opportunities to indulge, and if you’ve been cycling on and off diets for decades or just getting conflicting cultural messages of partying hard while also practicing iron-will around royal icing… things can get confusing fast.
You may already be feeling guilty for the Christmas cookies, sparkling wine and leftover mashed potatoes to come or telling yourself it will be different this year, all while a niggling voice in the back of your mind tells you there is no hope and why even bother.
If this is your story, I want you to know as a Registered Dietitian who has helped over 70 women heal their relationships with food and their bodies: there is hope.
I recommend you watch this short, 3-minute video about one former emotional eater’s experience with her favorite Christmas cookies:
Why you struggle to make healthy holiday eating choices
First, it’s important to understand why you struggle to make healthy choices in the holiday season.
The prevailing narrative is that there is something wrong with you and your self-control if you can’t be happy with just one cookie and lots and lots of salad – so you will likely turn to self-criticism and guilt when cookie #2 finds its way into your mouth.
The reality is willpower and self-control have nothing to do with your struggle. Here’s what’s really going on:
- Your nervous system is keyed up and the stress hormone cortisol is sending “eat” signals to your brain.
It’s not just psychological stress that can impact you during the holidays (although there is often plenty of that)… inflammation, a history of trauma, caring what others think of you, blood sugar imbalance, and more can contribute.
- You feel restricted or deprived. When food is “off-limits”, our bodies produce a greater level of the reward and pleasure chemical dopamine, creating more motivation to eat that food.
- You are emotionally eating. When food holds more meaning than just “fuel”, for example, you eat for nostalgia, or to avoid boredom, or to feel pleasure, it’s emotional eating.
Emotional eating on its own is not bad, how wonderful that the Asian Slaw with Top Ramen noodles reminds me of Great Aunt Nancy who is no longer with us, it’s a joy to crunch the noodles every year and remember her.
And yet, if you eat every time you feel emotion or food becomes your coping mechanism, it can steal your joy and your health. If you need help to heal emotional eating, you can download my free Emotional Eating Roadmap here.
4 tips to make healthy holiday eating choices without feeling deprived
- Think about what you want out of the holidays ahead of time. What makes the holidays special to you? What foods are you most excited about? What traditions or activities are meaningful to you.
If you LOVE your sister’s pretzel salad (and I’m using the word salad very loosely here, my midwesterners know what I’m talking about), but don’t care for your husband’s pecan pie – intentionally enjoy the pretzel salad and skip the pie.
While this sounds obvious, if you go into a meal feeling like you “shouldn’t” eat anything that tastes good, the dopamine reaction I mentioned earlier will cause you to end up with a plate piled high with things you don’t even enjoy.
- Use the half-plate routine at holiday buffets. A member of my free private Facebook group, Emotional Eating and Women’s Wellness Community shared that she was most anxious for all the special food at holiday gatherings.
In addition to being intentional about what you want to enjoy at the gathering, you can avoid mindless eating by following my half-plate routine – every time you fill your plate up, make sure half the plate is filled with veggies. Then, it doesn’t matter as much what you put on the other half of your plate.
Those vegetables are full of fiber that can help you feel full and satisfied. They have anti-inflammatory and disease-fighting phytochemicals that are going to help you stay healthy. Many people find they need to bring yummy veggies to group potlucks in order to make this easier.
- Give yourself permission to eat cookies. Along the theme of intentionality if you plan on spending hours in the kitchen and know you struggle with tasting your wares, make tasting your cookies special. Set time aside with a glass of milk, coffee or tea, some cookies, and a protein snack like a handful of nuts to take a break and savor.
In order for this to work you have to give yourself full permission to enjoy the cookies and when guilt or critical thoughts come in, don’t allow them to ruin your fun.
- Feel your feelings. If you’re struggling with using food to avoid or numb negative feelings or be a primary source of positive feelings in your life, you won’t be able to feel comfortable around food until you heal emotional eating by learning to feel your feelings.
You can get started towards healing by downloading my free guide: You’re Done Dieting, But Still Want to Heal Emotional Eating: A Roadmap to Achieve Peace and Freedom with Food and to Feel Comfortable In Your Own Skin, for Women over 45 Who Have Tried it All.