'Tis the Season NOT To YO-YO Diet: A Guide to Intuitive Eating During the Holidays

The holidays are a time of joy and celebration.  They are a time for us to give, to be inspired, and to be thankful for all we have.  To that end, most of us view the holidays with tremendous fondness.  However, even for those of us who love and look forward to the holiday season, it can still present challenges.  It always seems that there is too much to do and too little time.  We juggle our over-packed schedules, trying to find time for all of the family gatherings, work functions, events for the kids.  We travel through crowded airports, or make our homes available to travel-weary family members from out of town.  We stress out about buying the perfect gifts for our family and friends, not wanting to disappoint while also trying to manage a budget.  And then…there is the food!!! Most of us can’t think about the holiday season without also visualizing an endless line of cookies, pies, fruitcake, and on and on.  The combination of holidays and food might not be a trigger for some, but for a wide population, food-related stress, anxiety or guilt can be as synonymous with the holidays as all of the wonderful and positive memories of the season. 

For my clients and so many others, the holidays can be the most difficult time of the year for finding balance and overcoming the “all or nothing” diet mentality.  As a result, it’s also the optimal time to practice and apply the principles of intuitive eating.  As I have posted in the past, intuitive eating is all about perspective, balance and flexibility.  Start by asking yourself a couple of basic questions and really reflect on your answers.  First, when it comes to your relationship with food, do you feel happy, balanced, and in control during the holiday season?  Or, do you find yourself letting thoughts of food, including your self-imposed “food rules,” cause you stress, anxiety, or guilt to the point where you are losing the enjoyment of the holiday season?  The same type of question can be asked about exercise.  Are you enjoying your exercise routine during the holiday season, or is it becoming more of a compulsion that is taking up too much time and mental space?  The holiday season is full of stressors and triggers for those who struggle with, or might be prone to struggle, with eating disorders or disordered eating.  It's also incredibly stressful for those who are caught up in the diet mentality.  That's because, during the holidays and leading into the New Year, America’s diet culture is in full bloom.  Ever notice how many advertisements around this time of the year involve diet and exercise?  How all the gyms are starting to run their “one-time-only” promotions?  Most dieters go on four or five failed diet attempts per year, and the $60 billion weight loss industry knows that this is the time of year when all of those lifelong yo-yo dieters are at their most vulnerable for buying into the next dishonest or ineffective short-term fad. 

Practicing and applying some intuitive eating principals during the holiday season can help you feel healthier, stronger, and happier during the holidays.  Here are a few of my favorite principles to keep in mind during the holiday season.

  •  Reject the Diet Mentality and Challenge the Food Police – When it comes to the holidays, this means allowing yourself some flexibility and abandoning the “all or nothing” diet mentality that acts as such a saboteur for so many of us.  The diet mentality says we have to compare ourselves physically against others.  The diet mentality says that we have to eat “clean,” and when we don’t, we are “bad” because we have broken some imaginary and self-imposed “food rules.”  Especially during the holidays, we mentally box ourselves into an unnecessary and unrealistic ideal of being “good” and eating only (or primarily) “clean” foods.  However, once we break our rule by eating that piece of fudge or cake, it’s often all downhill from there, as this spirals into overeating or bingeing.  These “last suppers” are incredibly common with dieters during the holiday season.  There is both a physical and a mental component to it.  Physically, your body isn’t meant to operate on restriction.  If you deprive yourself of food all day, your body is going to want to make up that deficit by eating a lot more food at some point.  Commonly, with dieters during the holiday season, they restrict all day long so they can have a meal with some of that “bad” holiday food at dinner time.  However, by the time dinner rolls around, the holiday dieters’ bodies are so deprived, that they need a lot more of that food in order to replenish and function.  This physical state is referred to as “primal hunger.”  Thus, the perceived lack of willpower is really just a person’s body demanding to be nourished.  But even once nourished, there is the mental side of the diet mentality that says, “screw it…I’ve already failed…no point in stopping now…I’ll just start over even better tomorrow…”  The diet mentality is built upon shame.  It is a set up for failure, relapse and yo-yo dieting.  It is a year-round cycle, but plays out with more frequency and influence during the holiday season.  The solution is not immediate or easy, but involves the process of slowly reprogramming and strengthening your mind and spirit to reject the false hope of losing weight quickly or having the perfect body.  It also involves learning not to view food as “good” versus “bad,” and giving yourself permission to eat what your body wants, when it wants.  


  • Honor Your Hunger and Respect your Fullness – These are two other intuitive eating principles that overlap with the two above, and can also take on great importance during the holiday season.  I think so many people view the holidays as either an opportunity or excuse to binge, or conversely, view food during the holidays with such fear and anxiety, that they spend the holidays trying to hide from foods, in order to avoid temptation (been there).  Intuitive eating during the holidays is about listening to and respecting what your body and mind are telling you.  Give yourself unconditional permission to eat, but be mindful of what your body is telling you.  If you tell yourself that certain foods are off limits, and you play the restriction game, chances are you will start out feeling miserable with hunger, before breaking your rule and overeating, and then you’ll end up feeling even more miserable with shame.  You can avoid this shame cycle by honoring the biological signals your body is sending you, which tell you when you are hungry.  On the flip side, listen to your body signals that tell you when you are no longer hungry.  Honestly, is it an American rule that we have to be uncomfortably stuffed during the holidays?  Does that physical sensation feel good?  If we take a few deep breathes and a few seconds to think about it, do we really think this is the last time we’re going to be able to eat whatever food we might be overdoing it with?  The answer to all three of these questions is overwhelmingly no.  So, why do we eat to the point where food does not taste good, and actually makes us feel physically uncomfortable?  The answer is that we are not listening to or honoring our body’s biological signals.  This holiday season, start practicing to honor your body, again.  For some of you, this process might go against your longstanding ideas and ingrained relationship with food.  It might take not only a lot of practice, but a lot of patience and kindness toward yourself.  Now, with the holidays upon us, it’s a great time to start working on applying these principles.  


  • Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food – Finally, I want to touch upon exercise when it comes to holidays and New Year’s Resolutions in a later blog, but the last holiday-related intuitive eating principle I’ll address in today’s blog is the importance of finding ways to honor our feelings without using food.  For all of the love, happiness, and celebration that many of us experience during the holidays, there is also a lot of reason to get stressed or sometimes even get sad or angry.  Some of us turn to food for comfort or to distract from these difficult feelings.  There is no question that food can feel comforting, or sometimes numbing, and there is nothing "wrong" with this.  However, food does not solve the underlying problem that might be triggering our difficult feelings.  In fact, it usually just leaves us feeling even worse with guilt and shame.  First and foremost, identify your feelings, show yourself some compassion, and allow yourself to experience the feeling.  Second, find an outlet other than food.  This might be journaling, taking a walk, reading a good book, or talking with someone.  Finding social connections and support systems is key.  During this holiday season, start building up your resiliency and your support system, so you no longer want or need to turn to food as a temporary band aid for dealing with your emotions.

In sum, Merry Christmas and happy holidays!  Enjoy your friends and family.  Be kind and generous to others.  Work on listening to your body and your mind as part of a process of being more mindful/intuitive.  And, above all else, be kind to yourself!!!