Well friends, we are deep in the throes of the holiday season. Personally, I love it. I’ve got my pine tree candles burning constantly, I’m deep in the planning of the Christmas meal, drinking Candy Cane Lane 24/7, rocking my ugly sweater compression socks, and I’m really leaning into a cookie-baking obsession that started sometime around Thankgiving. For some people though, this can be a time of high anxiety in regards to food.
There are a lot of reasons why the holidays can make people stress out about food: we’re all super busy and may not have time to cook the same way we normally do, there are a lot of holiday parties and offerings may not be ideal, there are sweets around constantly that can be tough to resist. Never fear! I’m here to assure you: enjoying holiday food does not have to come with shame.
In fact, it shouldn’t. Shame is an emotion that has absolutely no place at the dinner table. Or breakfast table. Or lunch table. Or second breakfast table. You get what I mean.
When patients feel shame about their food choices, it’s generally because they’ve eaten a bunch of food that isn’t nutritious. Too many of the things that they have grouped in the “bad for you” category without appreciating other qualities of their foods of choice. This holiday season, I urge you: appreciate food for more than just the nutrients it provides.
Sure, this is a website where I discuss how specific food patterns or nutrients will affect your biology, and how to incorporate that science into your everyday diet. But while I tend to focus on the biological aspects of food, food does so much more for us – “perfect” nutrition isn’t the only thing to consider when making food choices.
Food can do a lot more for us than just provide nutrients and energy:
- Shared meals bring us closer to those we love
- Food is DELICIOUS – it gives us pleasurable tastes, smells, and textures
- There are few better ways to learn about new cultures than to sit at their table
- Certain dishes can bring back memories of people, places, and times that are dear to us that we may not be able to access “for real”
These are all completely legitimate reasons to choose a food. Deliberately choosing to eat a slice of your grandmother’s famous pumpkin pie, appreciating the taste and texture while sharing memories of other times you’ve eaten the pie with the family members gathered around you is an experience to be treasured, not to feel shame over.
Of course, there are bad reasons for choosing foods, like:
- It was there
- I didn’t plan my meals appropriately, then shoved an entire bag of ____ down my throat because I was about to make a lot of enemies (we’ve all been there)
- I just wasn’t paying attention/was not engaged in my eating experience and before I knew it I had eaten [insert ungodly amount of whatever it may be here]
- I wanted to clean my plate
- I thought I should try everything that was on the buffet because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by not eating a full serving of their contribution
These are not good reasons. The first list of good reasons has a common thread of appreciating your food. You’re allowing it to feed your body as well as your heart and soul, using food as a vehicle to connect to the world. The second list of bad reasons does not have that quality. If anything, all the points on this list share a disengagement with the eating process, treating it as more of a mechanical necessity and leaving a lot of room for making choices that are neither nutritious nor enriching.
In order to avoid making food choices based on these bad reasons, try doing the opposite: plan your meals, choose foods on purpose rather than out of convenience, understand that nobody is actually watching what you eat at the dinner table so choose what you want to eat, and use your internal hunger/fullness cues to determine when you’re done eating rather than whether your plate still has food on it.
So how do you navigate a holiday dinner without feeling shame about the rich foods?
Consider the following three categories that foods fit into:
1. Foods you feel proud of: This is the “good nutrition” category. This includes things like vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Common holiday foods in this category would be turkey, green salad, roasted brussels sprouts, roasted potatoes, slow-cooked brisket, brown rice pilaf, wheat dinner rolls. Sounds delicious, right?
2. Foods that are important to you: The Ross family cheesy potatoes fall into this category for me for sure. A lot of desserts would fall into this category, the rich, creamy, cheesy, delicious things that come out at holiday. The booze 😉
3. Take it or leave it foods: Things that don’t fit into your ideal diet and that you don’t really love. For me, this is often the bread on the table. Why would I fill up on that when I can eat more cheesy potatoes???
BEFORE YOU SIT DOWN TO EAT, use your brain. Chances are you have a good idea of what will be available at dinner. Make yourself a good game plan with a goal to fill 1/2 your plate with nonstarchy vegetables from category #1, and taking small portions of the #2s. Remember, eating more won’t make it taste any better, it will just make you feel worse physically. Then, make peace with your decisions. Give yourself permission to choose the not-so-nutritious foods and to fully enjoy those choices. Food is a lot like life – if you’re not enjoying it, you’re doing it wrong.
Please join me in making deliberate food choices this holiday season for your body and your soul, and let those cookies buoy your spirit rather than weighing you down with guilt! I invite you to share with me on on twitter or instagram about how you’re having a #noshameholiday. Enjoy these last few weeks of 2016!