We look forward to the holidays all year long, but why? For some, it’s family togetherness or a spiritual celebration, but for many the holidays are about eating, drinking, shopping and doing all things in excess. Somehow the more we eat, the emptier we feel.
This holiday can be different, says Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, MPH, a nationally known speaker, author and eating disorder specialist who consults at The Ranch eating disorder treatment program in Tennessee. Here are a few ways you can avoid binge eating and bring true meaning back to the holidays.
#1 Avoid Black or White Thinking
A characteristic shared by individuals with eating disorders is all or nothing thinking – seeing life and self in extremes with no shades of gray. For example, if you have an eating disorder, you may feel that you are a glowing success or a terrible failure when the reality falls somewhere in between.
“People with disordered eating patterns approach holiday eating as an all-or-nothing proposition,” says Dr. Ross. “They either diet and restrict during the holidays or go to the other extreme and binge, promising to go on a diet after the New Year.”
Eating mindfully and in moderation is a healthier approach. When we allow ourselves to enjoy small portions of our favorite foods, we don’t feel deprived and then overdo it.
#2 Practice Mindful Eating
When was the last time you ate mashed potatoes? Is dessert a forbidden food? Many people, especially those with a history of dieting, have bought into what Dr. Ross calls the “bad food phenomenon,” labeling certain foods as bad and others as good.
“There are no bad foods. The only thing that is ‘bad’ is how we use food,” Dr. Ross explains. “If we use food to push away sadness or other emotions, or we eat to cope with stress, depression or anxiety, we’re using food for a purpose that it was never intended to serve.”
Rather than setting rigid rules that categorize specific foods as good or bad, Dr. Ross recommends that people eat the foods they enjoy as long as they eat mindfully. This may sound like a green light to binge on fattening foods, but in reality mindful eating is the opposite of the way many people eat over the holidays. It requires people to slow down, pay attention to the way their meal looks and tastes, and listen attentively to their body’s hunger and satiety cues.
“When we eat mindfully, we usually eat less because we’re satisfying all of our senses – sight, sound, taste, smell and touch,” says Dr. Ross. “We may still choose to eat comfort foods but we will be more aware of the emotional connections these foods have as well as their taste. It’s okay to eat Grandma’s strawberry shortcake and to revel in memories of your relationship with your Grandma as long as you are being mindful and really enjoying the food, not just the memory.”
#3 Find Healthy Ways to Cope
The holidays can stir up memories and feelings that have been suppressed the rest of the year. Some people are away from loved ones and missing old times, while others are struggling with relationships with family members that they share the holidays with. Rather than burying feelings in food, Dr. Ross encourages people to become aware of their emotions and find healthier, more effective ways to cope.
Food isn’t the solution to emotional issues. It is merely a temporary distraction. Instead of giving into the urge to binge, try the following:
- Give yourself time and space to identify what you’re feeling.
- Pay attention to the way your feelings lead to overeating.
- Have a place you can go to express your emotions safely, without fear of judgment or embarrassment.
- Create a strategy in advance for dealing with emotions in difficult situations; for example, when relatives make comments about your eating habits or weight or push food on you.
#4 Don’t Diet
The holidays are a socially acceptable time to engage in unhealthy eating habits. Many people save all of their calories in the days leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas. By the time they sit down to eat, they are exploding with hunger and unable to stay mindful about their food consumption.
Food isn’t the only culprit. The holidays are also a popular time to drink alcohol excessively, which can hinder your ability to make clear judgments.
“Dieting during the holidays is a set-up for binge eating,” says Dr. Ross. “Instead of skipping meals and then eating in excess, it is important to stick to a regular eating plan.”
#5 Imbue the Holidays with Meaning
“It’s difficult to be equanimous during the holidays because they have lost their meaning,” says Dr. Ross. “If we can restore some sense of meaning, we can bring the joy back into meals and celebrations.”
Even if the holidays have been about eating since you were a child, it’s never too late to create new rituals that represent who we are now, not who we were as children. Whether it’s spending time cooking as a family, taking a walk after dinner or running the Turkey Trot each year, finding joy in activities that don’t revolve around eating will guard against binge eating.
#6 Get Help for Binge Eating Disorder
Although the holidays can be one of the most difficult times to be away from family and friends, it is also one of the most effective times to begin eating disorder treatment. You may feel guilty about going into treatment during the holidays and not being with your family. It’s important to recognize that an eating disorder separates you from family members, creating an emotional distance in spite of physical presence. With the stress of heightened emotions and complex family dynamics, eating disorder symptoms frequently worsen over the holidays.
“In many ways, an eating disorder treatment program is the best place to be for the holidays,” Dr. Ross explains. “Surrounded by people who understand you and support you in your recovery, you can enjoy the holidays and get well at the same time.”
Many eating disorder treatment programs recognize the difficulty of being away for the holidays and make the experience memorable by preparing a special meal and taking advantage of volunteer opportunities in the community. These programs also provide support and education for family members, who are encouraged to suspend judgment and be supportive of those struggling with food and body image issues.
“Most families would gladly sacrifice being together for one holiday season to see a loved one get help for an eating disorder,” says Dr. Ross. “It’s not just about this holiday, it’s about being healthy and truly present for all of the holidays to come.”