If you're looking for simple, healthy eating tips for the holidays to reduce your overwhelm, anxiety, and stress about what, when, and how to eat, you're in the right place! Use these intuitive eating tips not only during the holiday season, but year-round to make peace with food and your body.
This guest post is by Sarah Newman, a holistic wellness and mindset coach who helps women ditch dieting, heal from food and wellness obsession, and reclaim their innate power and happiness. Sarah is a body image enthusiast and former disordered eater who learned to make peace with her body, food, and life. Now, she’s giving women the tools to do the same! Sarah helps women learn how to trust and accept their bodies at any size, including how to eat intuitively and become the experts of their own bodies.
Sarah is a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, has a BA in Psychology from The College of William & Mary, and is a Certified Law of Attraction Coach from the QSCA.
Over to you, Sarah!
Picture this: it’s Thanksgiving Day, and instead of enjoying time with your loved ones, giving thanks for your blessings, and delighting in the abundance of flavorful foods, you’re completely distracted, preoccupied, and freaking out about WHAT, WHEN, and HOW you’re going to eat.
Likely, you’re feeling…
- obsessed about your body (“Will I gain weight or screw up all the healthy eating I’ve done recently?!”, you wonder)
- anxious about the repercussions if you ‘overindulge’ (“If I eat too many carbs, I’ll be a failure” you conclude)
- overwhelmed if you've been extremely obsessed with eating ‘clean' (to a fault) this year (You think, “Should I bring my own food and only eat that? Maybe I should cancel my plans and stay home. Or, if I skip meals ahead of time and compensate with exercise, maybe it will be okay. Ahh, I'm SO stressed out about this!!”)
- haunted by the dessert table (truthfully, it’s only a matter of time before you’re sneaking cookies when no one is looking)
Can you relate?
If any of this sounds familiar, this post is for you!
We all know that the holidays should be about celebration, gratitude, giving, and cherishing this special time of the year, but for those of us who have struggled with yo-yo dieting, disordered eating, wellness obsession, body dysmorphia, or any type of unbalance when it comes to our relationship with food and our bodies, the holidays becomes a time when the volume of our anxiety, fears, and obsessive behaviors usually gets turned up.
The good news? There’s another way! You don’t need to go into fear and panic around the holidays. In this post, I’m sharing three healthy eating tips to teach you what NOT to do with your eating habits to cultivate a healthier, more relaxed and balanced relationship to food and your body.
While these apply to the holiday season, you can actually practice these principles year-round to experience what it feels like to have true holistic wellness WITHOUT it becoming an obsession and one more thing to do ‘perfectly’.
Note before we dive in: I teach a self-care eating framework called Intuitive Eating. What’s important when practicing the following tips is not always getting it ‘right’ and being ‘perfect’, but rather using these as a guideline to learn how to treat your body with respect, kindness, and compassion.
There is no such thing as ‘messing up’ with Intuitive Eating, so don't beat yourself up! Do your best to avoid the ‘all or nothing' mentality (when you conclude that you either need to do everything perfectly, or not do it at all). The goal is to learn what feels good and right to you and your unique body–NOT to give yourself another set of rules of standards to dogmatically live up to.
Okay, let’s get into it!
3 Healthy Eating Tips for the Holidays: What Not To Do
Healthy Eating Tip #1: Don’t let yourself get ravenously hungry or “hangry”.
It’s common during the holidays to go all day without eating, ‘saving up’ our calories and appetites for the big meal.
The challenge with this is that we get so incredibly hungry we become irritable and angry (a.k.a. ‘hangry’, when we start lashing out at other people and feeling overly frustrated at what would otherwise be non-triggering events)–which is not only NOT enjoyable or fun for ourselves or others to be around, but it's also hard to make rational, mindful decisions around food when you reach that level of hunger.
When you’re hangry, all you want to do is eat everything in sight. The majority of the time, you eat way past fullness to the point of discomfort, in an attempt to compensate for your hunger.
In the intuitive eating world, we call this level of hunger ‘primal hunger’, because our primal instincts kick in. When you go a long period of time without eating, your body thinks it’s going into a famine. Your body doesn’t know this is intentional on your part and that food is coming later, so it reacts by going into survival mode.
In a protective attempt to ensure you don’t go too long without eating, your body does whatever it can to give you the signals (extreme feelings of hunger, irritability, headaches, thoughts about food, low energy, etc.) to ensure you know what to do–which is to eat! This is actually a beautiful, built-in protective mechanism our bodies have to help keep us alive–but one that, in many modern populations who have no real fears of actual starvation–can feel really frustrating.
When you finally do eat, your body wants to eat as much as possible because it’s afraid that you’re going to go another day without eating. If your body could speak, it would say, “If there’s another mini famine, I’m going to make sure that I’m stockpiled to survive and will be okay!”
This natural, biological response makes it extra hard for us to stop eating, and we conclude that we’re ‘crazy’ and ‘out of control’ around food (but as you can see, this is just biology doing what it’s supposed to!).
Moral of the story: if you restrict food to ‘save calories’ for a big meal or party, it always backfires!
What to do instead: eat as you normally would throughout the day with regularly scheduled, balanced meals and snacks. That way, you have a ‘normal’ level of comfortable hunger when it’s time for a holiday meal or party, so you can more easily decide what you truly want to eat, and then stop when you’re comfortably full. This also helps increase your ability to be present with your food (and with other people), and thus get more satisfaction from the meal overall.
Healthy Eating Tip #2: Don’t compensate or “make up” for your eating.
Do you ever feel like you need to ‘make up’ for what you perceive to be ‘bad’ or ‘indulgent’ behaviors around food?
Compensatory behaviors are behaviors of restricting, exercising, and/or fasting based on whatever you’ve eaten recently.
- feeling like you need to do a cleanse after a holiday weekend
- telling yourself you need to “work off” the food you ate yesterday, or exercising before a meal so that you ‘deserve’ whatever you decide to eat later
- eating less the day(s) before and/or after a holiday meal or an ‘overindulgence’ (even though you’re hungry again)
The truth is, there’s nothing you need to do to ‘deserve’ to eat. The right to eat is not something we gain depending on our behaviors. When you’re hungry, eat!
I know firsthand how stressful it can feel when you eat outside of your usual parameters and routines, but remember: a few days of eating a little differently than normal is not going to make much of a difference or have any long term effects on your health goals. Your body can handle it. Just like eating salads and vegetables for a couple weeks out of the year won’t drastically improve your health, the opposite is also true.
Not only that, but here’s what’s really problematic with this mindset of compensation: the more you try to compensate for what you’ve eaten, the worse your relationship with food tends to become. You’re essentially telling yourself that you need to be punished because you’ve done something wrong.
When you restrict, avoid eating, or over exercise if “overindulging” does occur, it creates a vicious cycle in your eating habits. Often, this leads to a ‘binge-restrict’ cycle, where you’re going from one extreme to another: binging on food, then–due to feeling guilty and ashamed afterwards–you restrict your food. Restriction leads to feeling of deprivation, eventually having you binge again on the very foods you’ve been avoiding–and so this unhealthy cycle goes on.
What to do instead: exercise and move your body as it feels good to do so, but NOT as punishment or compensation. If you do eat ‘too much’ or eat foods you believe you ‘shouldn’t’, try practicing compassion with yourself instead of getting upset and planning how you are going to ‘fix’ this.
Remind yourself that normal eaters eat all foods (sans any medical condition that requires otherwise), and they too sometimes eat past the point of fullness.
If you feel it continues to happen consistently, self reflect on if you are restricting your eating (either of certain foods or not eating altogether) because 9 times out of 10, overeating and binge eating on foods deemed ‘off limits’ happens after times or days of food restriction–which I’ll expand on in tip #3 below.
Healthy Eating Tip #3: Don’t make any foods ‘off limits’.
One of the main reasons we go into fear around foods is because we don’t allow ourselves to eat our favorite foods (ie. sugar, carbs, etc.) and we’re used to being in a state of restriction with certain food groups.
So naturally, when we do allow ourselves to have some carbs for the first time in weeks, it becomes incredibly hard to stop eating when we’re comfortably full. The deprivation of these foods builds uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing.
For example, when we've been strictly avoiding sugar and then suddenly we’re immersed in a sea of Christmas cookies, we feel preoccupied–often to the point of obsession–thinking about these ‘off limits’ foods and we feel ‘out of control’ once we do allow ourselves one bite.
You think, “What the hell… I already ate one cookie, might as well have 10. At least I have New Years to get myself into gear again!” as you fantasize about whatever strict protocol you'll try out come January to “get your body back” (even though this pattern has always failed you). You say, “I’m serious this time! I’m really never going to have sugar again after December 31st.”
This is called the ‘Last Supper Effect’. When you think that you’ll never have foods again–like right before you start a new diet–you completely over do it on the very foods you think will be out of your life. The fear of future restriction causes binging.
What to do instead: Make peace with foods. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat these foods throughout the year. All foods fit in a balanced lifestyle.
Wait, what?! I know what you’re thinking: “If I give myself unconditional permission to eat cookies, won’t I just eat Oreos all day, every day?!!?”
Nope. You won’t. That’s just your fear speaking. The more you’ve restricted this food, the more fearful you’ll be of exposing yourself to it on a regular basis.
Here’s what will happen: yes, at first you likely will eat more of this food for a period of time. (Remember the binge-restrict cycle from earlier?). It’s a natural part of the process when healing your relationship to food that you’ll want to freely enjoy it, often feeling like a kid in a candy store. You might eat Oreos daily for a week. You might eat them for breakfast. BUT–before you get too scared–here’s what happens next: they lose their excitement and charge.
Imagine for a minute if you could ONLY eat Oreos. You would get SO sick of Oreos and never want them again! You’d start craving other things to balance out your body, like protein and vegetables.
When you give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, foods lose their power. If you know you can have those foods again tomorrow, there’s no need to overdo it now. When you’re habituated to foods, studies show that you have decreased behavioral and physiological responses. (source) When you embrace an ‘all foods fit’ mentality, you can enjoy and savor every type of food.
It may seem counterintuitive at first, but what tends to happen is that, over time, you actually eat more balanced and healthier (studies on Intuitive Eating show that it leads to healthier eating behaviors).
You learn to start trusting your body’s signals, your cravings, and making decisions from a place of awareness that isn’t available to you when you’re dieting or restricting (remember from tip #1 how much our biology dictates our behaviors when we live from a place of food scarcity?).
I challenge you to experiment with giving yourself unconditional permission to eat a food you currently consider ‘off limits’. How does it feel knowing that you can enjoy this whenever you want? Does it taste different? Do you love this food as much as you thought you did? (Remember to experiment with this when you’re not ravenously hungry, as you’re more likely to engage in rebound eating.)
Intuitive Eating means getting back to your roots—trusting your body and your signals. It will not only change your relationship with food and your body; it will change your life! Through trusting this process, you’ll reclaim your power and autonomy, your time, your energy, your happiness, and your freedom.
This holiday season, I’m wishing you more permission and less punishment, more compassion and less shame, more joy and less guilt, and more in-the-moment eating and less compensatory thinking.
Because you deserve peace, pleasure, and full permission to eat.
Thanks, Sarah, for sharing your wisdom with us!
Now, over to you: what tips do you have for eating healthy and mindfully this holiday season?