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  • Writer's pictureSarah McDonald

Navigating the holidays + food

Disclaimer: This post talks about anxiety around food and eating. It discusses binge eating, over-eating and restricted eating. If you find any of these topics triggering this may not be the post for you.


The holidays have come to an end and I know that to be true because I am back to work this week after having two delightful weeks off. I always look forward to post-Christmastime. Every year on December 26 I am ready to put away all the Christmas decorations that a mere day before felt warm and comforting but on Boxing Day suddenly feels like extra clutter that needs to go away, now!

Don't think I'm a total Grinch. There are so many joyful aspects of the holidays, as there truly does seem to be a little extra magic in the air during the month of December. There's time spent with family and loved ones (in person or virtually this year), the happiness that comes from giving to the people you love, and enjoying your yearly traditions, which is often centered around a lot of incredible food. I know that I am not alone when I say that food has always been a very important part of my family's holiday traditions. Truth be told, food is at the centerpiece of almost every social occasion but this particular time of year is on another level. Whether it's Christmas cookies, the Swiss Chalet festive special (which I look forward to all year), or my mom's famous Christmas morning pull apart bread, we have quite a repertoire of well-loved holiday favourites. We consume these things almost ritualistically as the holiday season unfolds and there is something so comforting and nostalgic about these dishes. I can’t pinpoint when and where all of these culinary traditions began. Some, like our Christmas pudding, which comes from my mom's British heritage, have been celebrated year after year since before I was born. While others, like our Christmas morning pull apart bread, we stumbled upon in recent years but they have quickly become sacred parts of our holiday gatherings. I'd love to know what are your favourite holiday family recipes? I love hearing about other people’s traditional recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation and I adore getting family recipes from my boyfriend's mom. Receiving a cherished family recipe from someone is a huge gesture that feels like you have been welcomed into a secret club.

My mom's Christmas morning pull apart bread.

Cookies and chocolate and treats... OH MY!


As wonderful as holiday food is, it does bring a host of anxieties for a lot of people and can be especially challenging for someone that is trying to navigate healthy eating and is working on unlearning years of unhealthy habits and thinking. I started the month of December with about 7 pounds left to lose to hit my goal weight and I had been on a roll since March. I'd relied heavily on calorie counting to create a calorie deficit in order to lose weight and I'd learned to develop some great, sustainable changes that allowed me to incorporate all kinds of food into my daily eating plan (full disclosure: I eat chocolate every single day). While I have been, and continue to, work on building a strong foundation of healthy habits it’s not yet intuitive for me because it takes a lot of energy, focus and thought. Once I was into December, with the holidays approaching, I began to feel more and more anxious about all of the food that would absolutely be outside of my current eating routine that had proven to be successful for so long and I was so close to my goal. Losing control over what I would be eating was not sitting well with me. In order to be successful at losing weight in a healthy way I have needed to be conscious about what I eat, how much and when. I am mindful about when I eat indulgent food; the holidays, however, are a constant barrage of indulgent food. Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, Christmas dinner and everything yummy in between... it often feels as though there's no time to take a breath. With all this food looming before me over the next several weeks, it seemed impossible to try and balance all of these meals when they were happening one after another and balance has been the key to my success. This sent me into a big spiral of anxiety and overthinking. Was I setting myself back by losing the momentum that I had had spent years creating? Was I overdoing it with the Christmas cookies? Maybe I should just skip the pull apart bread this year? That's when I stumbled on this post by Glennon Doyle that seemed to speak directly to me at the exact time that I was having difficulty processing all of these thoughts and emotions.

Unlearning


"And why can't I just be normal with food?" That line hit me like a ton of bricks and I really started to wonder if I will ever be "normal" with food. I have been able to incorporate a lot of habits that have helped me to get where I am today such as mindful eating and calorie counting but eating in a balanced way does not come naturally to me I have to constantly work at it. Will the concept of food always be this battle being waged inside of my head of good vs bad? Having dealt with food issues for the last 25 years I know this is not something I'm going to overcome quickly and I have years and years of unlearning and relearning to do.


I found this article by registered dietitian Wendy Lopez really helpful and it discusses four tips to avoid feeling stressed at the holidays when it comes to food. These tips include:

  • acknowledge that emotional eating is a valid thing (it’s why we get that warm and fuzzy feeling when we share food with people we love and it's OK to have emotional attachments to food)

  • set boundaries with your family (you're allowed to say no to seconds)

  • don’t deprive yourself so you can eat more later (trust me it does not work)

  • be aware of insidious diet-culture marketing that is being targeted directly at your anxieties with food (you don't need to make a New Year's resolution to lose weight or join a gym on January 1st)

In the article, Lopez explains that people often cycle between two modes of thought during the holidays: limit all of the indulgent food or completely give in and go "HAM" (as Lopez puts it). This was absolutely true for me this past holiday season. One evening I indulged in a lot of Christmas cookies (I lost count after 8) that were made lovingly by my mom so it not only satisfied my sweet-tooth craving but it also satisfied my emotional eating. Afterwards I was feeling awful both physically, because my body is just not used to processing all that sugar in one sitting anymore, but I was also feeling emotionally defeated. It felt like I was being tested and I had undoubtedly failed. The test was a plate of Christmas cookies set out before me and I failed by not knowing when to quit. I thought I had lost all of that progress and learning that I had spent the last several years trying to cement in my brain. To counter balance that, I decided that for the rest of the holidays I would exercise more self-control and limit all of the extras. In turn, I was finding myself slipping back into that all or nothing mindset and neither mode felt natural or made me feel powerful. In both ways, I felt completely powerless over the consuming cycle of thoughts about food.


Relearning


This is an area that I am 100% still trying to navigate. I find it very difficult to relinquish some of the control that has proven to be so successful. But, I got through it and I'm still the same person I was before the holiday season who embodies the same healthy habits that I developed before December and will carry into 2021. I'm now about a week out of the holiday season and the thing that is different for me this year is that I didn't let my anxiousness completely derail my progress. I was able to navigate a difficult time for me emotionally and I came out the other side with the same goals, priorities and tool belt of healthy habits that I have just worked on building. I didn’t let my anxiety get the better of me and I was able to remember the bigger picture. Would one night of cookie indulgence counteract years of hard work? No, of course it wouldn’t. Be kind to yourself and don't beat yourself up if you veered off track, it happens and not only during the holiday season. Don't let it defeat you either. Continue to keep focused on what's important to you and remember that tomorrow is always a new day.

First walk of the New Year was a bit snowy.

Cheers!

xox Sarah



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