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How to maintain a healthy relationship with food through the festive period

For many this time of year represents a time of celebration, joy, connection and fun. However for some this time of year can also bring up some very negative emotions too. Depending on life and family circumstances, this time of year can also represent a time of heightened anxiety as individuals are confronted with:

- difficult relationships that they have with family members,

- a lot of financial pressure to give gifts and spend money that perhaps they don't have,

- loneliness and really feeling how their personal life isn't where they want it to be, and/or

- a pressure to be "happy" or "joyful" when actually the gloomy weather is making them feel more down.


So this time of year can actually be very difficult for a lot of people. This is also often the case for individuals that struggle with their relationship with food. The pressure to eat indulgent food and drink lots of alcohol at dinners, Christmas lunches, parties and gatherings can cause someone struggling with their relationship with food to deal with extreme anxiety and feelings of overwhelm. Individuals who like to "feel in control" of their food choices, may feel especially "out of control" of their food choices around this time of year. This is also the time of year when the unhelpful thought of "I will start my diet/healthy eating TOMORROW" often becomes "I will be good from January, so I might as well go crazy right now" and as a result, often individuals struggling with over-eating or binge-eating may notice that this thought process drives their eating habits to worsen.


So if you do have a difficult relationship with food - how can you enjoy this festive period whilst also feeling good about your food choices? Here are some gentle tips to consider:


DON''T MAKE JANUARY A BRAND NEW CHAPTER

One of the reasons December can become a month of over-indulgence for many is because they tell themselves that they will "be good" again from the new year. Whenever we defer something to "tomorrow" or "next week" or even "next month" - we are effectively giving ourselves permission to go crazy until that point. Our brain anticipates restriction in January by making us store as much food and energy as we can in advance of the crash diet in January. So a clever way to stop this from happening is to just not plan to do anything differently in January. If suddenly you can still eat whatever you want next year too - there is no immediate rush to cram in all of the food you can over the festive period.


ACTIVELY GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO EAT ALL FOODS WITHOUT GUILT

Another reason why people can end up with an unhelpful relationship with food over the festive period is because their food rules get in the way. Perhaps their food rules include that they shouldn't be eating any gluten, dairy or sugar and suddenly they find themselves surrounded by foods containing all of these ingredients over Christmas. These food rules may then cause someone to avoid social gatherings and isolate themselves from others because they don't want to be tempted to eat these foods. Alternatively, it could cause someone to eat one of these "forbidden" foods and then think "well I have ruined it now, so I might as well go crazy". If instead of having very strict food rules, someone has some flexible food guidelines, this is much more helpful. So perhaps that individual doesn't eat gluten, dairy or sugar day-to-day but if they give themselves permission to eat these things on special occasions, then they are much more likely to enjoy this time of year without feeling guilt around their food choices and options.


KEEP A MEAL STRUCTURE THAT WORKS FOR YOU

Often eating becomes disordered over the festive period because it lacks structure. Skipping a meal can easily lead to grazing all day long, not eating at certain times of the day can often make someone feel as though they are eating more than they actually are and the body doesn't do so well when eating is very erratic. Our bodies love routine and structure and even when we are eating more indulgent food more of the time, it helps to maintain some sort of structure to when we are eating. Often people struggling with restricting their food intake will use meal-skipping as a way to give themselves permission to eat more at meals later on, but this can often backfire if it results in them feeling super hungry and then really over-indulging at the next meal. Keeping some sort of flexible structure and regularity around eating can really help to prevent more disordered eating habits surfacing.


FEEL COMFORTABLE SAYING "NO"

At this time of year, there can be a lot of pressure to do things that you don't really want to do. Invites from friends, family members and colleagues to dinners and parties can soon add up and if you start feeling obliged to attend everything that you are invited to, you may end up feeling depleted and drained. Feel comfortable saying "No" when you are feeling as though you "should" go to something or do something that you don't really want to do.


AIM FOR BALANCE AND NOT PERFECTION

Often the anxiety that someone feels around food over the festive period is due to feeling as though they won't be able to eat how they "should" eat. Their goals around food can be very restrictive or prescriptive and feeling as though they can't meet these goals is what drives the anxiety. Aiming to give yourself as much flexibility as possible can really help to minimise the anxiety that you feel around food. It helps to aim for balance and just to do the best you can, rather than any form of "perfection".


AIM TO FOCUS ON THINGS OTHER THAN FOOD

Often the focus on food and what we should or shouldn't be eating is what can induce a lot of anxiety at this time of the year. Whilst of course what we eat is important for our physical and mental health - social connection, spending time with others and enjoying ourselves is also very important for our mental and emotional health too. So it is really important that strict food rules or worries about food are not holding you back from enjoying your life. Rather than focusing on what food may or may not be available at certain events/ dinners etc. - try and shift your focus on to who you are looking forward to seeing there, what you are excited to talk to them about, what nice things you can do together etc. instead.


If you would like some support in rebuilding your relationship with food, please get in touch at info@thefoodtherapyclinic.com


“Food brings people together on many different levels. It’s nourishment of the soul and body; it’s truly love.” – Giada De Laurentiis


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