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5 Things to Tell Yourself When You’re Feeling Food Guilt During Holiday Meals

This article is not intended to serve as treatment suggestions for eating disorders. If you, or someone else you know, is struggling from an eating disorder, I recommend visiting NEDA or ANAD for resources. 

When you think of the handful of holidays that span across late November into early January, what often comes to mind – besides time spent with family – is lots of good food and many varieties of desserts. And with an abundance of sweet treats, it’s common to hear phrases like, “I’ll work this off after,” or, “I won’t eat much tomorrow,” and some people may opt to skip out on dessert completely due to fear of gaining weight. But year after year, we keep hearing those comments, and more pumpkin pie and cheesecake ends up getting passed up on — and not willingly. What can we do, then, to mitigate these thoughts?

Here are five things to tell yourself when the idea of restricting yourself during the holidays crosses your mind.

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1. You can trust in your body to do its job

Your body manages your weight over longer periods of time, and one day of eating won’t cause long-term weight gain when you’re normally eating a balanced diet, according to Robin Berzin, MD. Even if you're feeling a little stuffed by the end. 

But if you're really concerned, try and reflect on your hunger and fullness cues throughout the meal. “You don't have to overeat – you can be respectful of the body and not induce pain," says Lisa Thomas, RD. If you're feeling full, it's important not to force yourself to eat more. If you don't feel like you can handle that second helping or dessert right now, set it aside for later, or pack it up to eat tomorrow. "The goal is not to make yourself uncomfortable and feel sick," says Thomas. The goal is just to enjoy your meal with your loved ones while you can! 

So making the decision to spoon a bit more mac and cheese onto your plate shouldn’t be stressful, and most certainly shouldn’t be something you should hate yourself for. Just have the extra few bites of the meal if they’ll make you happy in the moment –  there are no long-term consequences for it, and you won’t be derailed from any fitness goals you might have in mind.

2. Ignore or counter your family's toxic food commentary 

You’ve made the decision to have the extra helping of mashed potatoes, but sometimes, it’s not only you that might be hung up on the food you’re eating. Family members may also reinforce toxic ideas about restricting food, whether intentional or not. 

Whether you bring it up to them directly how that offhanded comment could have been triggering or hurt you is your choice, but it’s important not to allow what they’re saying to get to your head.

Julie Ohlemacher, a certified intuitive eating and body image coach, is very familiar with dealing with outside comments. “Ask yourself, ‘Do I have the energy for this conversation?’” she suggests. “If the answer is yes, finally ask yourself, ‘Do I want to have this conversation?’ If the answer is yes, you can move forward and simply ask the person to not talk about food (or their bodies) in that way around you, or have a more in-depth conversation about diet culture and intuitive eating.” 

If you don’t feel like having that conversation yet, set boundaries for those topics. You don’t want to remember only having conversations about food or diet culture with the family you only see once a year.

3. Don’t give power to diet culture 

Diet culture, unfortunately, is a prevalent part of the lives of many millennial and Gen-Z women, and that toxic commentary will only worsen it. Too many days of the year it hangs over us, not allowing us to enjoy the little, simple treats in life such as that extra cookie or even dressing on our salad. So why are we giving it extra power during the holidays, which are meant to be spent with lots of good food and love? 

We often place our worth in how we look, thanks to diet culture’s harmful fatphobic standards, according to Ohlemacher. “Remember that who you are is much more important than how you look,” she says. “All bodies are good bodies, and we are so much more than our bodies." 

4. Shift your feelings to gratitude

The holidays only come around once a year, and it’s healthy to come to terms with knowing that you’re able to enjoy a little more food than you normally do on a daily basis around your loved ones. Above everything else and very in line with the spirit of the season, Ohlemacher emphasizes the importance of having gratitude when eating. 

“Eating cookies or stuffing or mashed potatoes isn’t a crime, it's an incredible privilege,” she says. “Something I teach my clients is to try to shift from guilt to gratitude. Gratitude for the access to such wonderful food. Gratitude for the holiday season." When you find yourself feeling insecure or overwhelmed, try to be thankful instead.  

5. Eat what you want to eat, when you want to eat it 

Above all else, it’s important to eat intuitively and honor your cravings at the time they’re present. When your body’s asking for food at a certain time, you should feed it then, because food is fuel. However, if you aren’t hungry, but feel pressured to eat, don’t ignore what your body is telling you; pushing yourself to eat beyond the point you are full isn't healthy either. 

If worrying about hurting the chef’s feelings is a concern for you, remember not to force food down just for the sake of pleasing someone, and simply take a serving for later. “If you’re eating to make grandma feel better, you eat a smaller piece or find a way to eat it later when you are not full,” says Lisa Thomas, RD.  When’s the next time you’re going to have your grandparents’ famous sweet potato pie? That’s right, not until next holiday season.

We’re supposed to enjoy food, and it really is more about celebrating our relationships and family over food. The holidays are truly about showing our love through the food, and we can appreciate that and enjoy the complex aromas and flavors while trusting the body to take care of the rest. 

So as you head home for the holidays, keep both your hearts and plates full! Be kind to yourself, and if you really want that chocolate mousse, go for it! You shouldn’t feel like you need to “deserve” it or hold yourself from it,  because there are only so many holiday parties you get to have in a year – especially this year. Ohlemacher reminds us to focus on being present with our family, and the goodness and love of who you’re being, rather than the way you look.

Taylor Huang

Syracuse '23

Hi, I'm Taylor and I'm a sophomore at Syracuse University studying Magazine Journalism and Information Management & Technology. I am passionate about food, health & wellness, travel, and college life and hope to share that through writing!
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