Christmas is fast approaching, with just a couple of days to go until many of us are sat around tables with mismatched chairs from various people’s houses, laughing, and catching up over food. For many ‘it’s the most wonderful time of year’, but for others, the holidays can be a time for increased food anxiety and heightened diet talk as we transition from Christmas to the New Year. And this transition comes with the annual claim of ‘New Year, new me!’
As someone who has since recovered from an eating disorder, topics around body image and healthy relationships with food are very important to me. And I know they often resonate with many, including those who do not struggle with eating disorders.
So, how can you navigate the holidays whilst trying to create or maintain a healthy mindset towards food and body image?
Well, it’s not easy. And it will probably take a few holiday seasons for you to find what helps you cope, but I want to share what’s helped me combat negative emotions related to food and body image during the holidays.
Speak to friends and family about your concerns
Speaking to friends and family you trust about how you’re feeling can be a really great tool to apply all year round, and can be useful in avoiding potential trigger conversations, such as discussions over losing weight or feeling guilt around certain foods or eating habits.
It also means that if you do feel triggered or anxious at any point over the festive season, you have a support network in place that you can turn to.
The likelihood is that you’re not alone in your concerns, and many may be feeling the same way. By starting the conversation, you’re helping combat the normalcy of diet talk and food guilt.
You don’t have to overindulge if you don’t want to…
It’s become very normal to be expected to consume more than you normally would in terms of food and alcohol on Christmas Day and around Christmas time, but you don’t have to. You’re allowed to refuse seconds or thirds, you don’t have to drink; Christmas and the holiday period are much more than just food. Focus on enjoying yourself in the company of loved ones, and set boundaries that you’re comfortable with.
… but you shouldn’t feel bad if you do
In the same way shouldn’t feel obliged to eat more than you want to, you shouldn’t be shamed or guilted into eating less than you want. The guilt you will force yourself to feel for perhaps eating more than you might be used to, will impact you more than any food will. There is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, and you should be able to eat because you enjoy it and you enjoy the food.
Talk to a helpline or a professional
Therapy isn’t always accessible and NHS help can be at the end of a long waiting list, especially when it comes to issues such as eating disorders. That doesn’t mean help isn’t available though.
There are many charities and helplines that operate all year, and recognise that the holidays can be particularly stressful for some. Personally, I really recommend BEAT. Their helpline operates 365 days a year (yes, that means Christmas day too!) and offer confidential support. If calling isn’t really your thing, they also offer email support!
Talking to somebody through a helpline or speaking to a professional in an accessible way can really help relieve some of that anxiety you may be feeling around food and body image, by talking through it and being offered support from organisations that understand.
Create a list of coping mechanisms to refer back to
One of the best pieces of advice I can recommend is: have your future self’s back. Create a list, either on your phone or in your notebook, of activities or practices that you know will make you feel better. Whether it’s going to watch your favourite TV show, calling a friend, practising breathing exercises, reading a book, going for a walk or simply making a cup of tea.
By writing these down, it means you can refer back to this list when you’re feeling low, in an attempt to actively change your mindset, or shift your focus onto something that makes you feel better.
It’s good to have a range of activities too. If you’re feeling anxious at the dinner table, leaving halfway through to watch a TV show might not be so practical, but excusing yourself and practicing breathing exercises for 5 minutes might be, and could help you overcome your negative thoughts.
Avoid reading calories where you can
Aside from the main meal on Christmas Day, the holiday season is oftentimes for friends to get together and celebrate too, and this often means going out for a meal. Whilst this should mean a fun night out of catching up and laughing with loved ones, for many it can be overshadowed by fear and anxiety.
With the government introducing calories on menus with businesses that employ 250 or more staff – a move that was widely criticised by eating disorder charities and healthcare professionals, and that was discussed in Inspire the Mind before – it means that for many, what was already a difficult environment, has become even harder to overcome.
However, there are a few ways to try and combat it. First off, you can go out and support a local restaurant, which is unlikely to have calories on the menu. You can also ask places or call up beforehand to find out if they have menus without calories on. The government said that part of the regulation includes calorie-free menus to be offered at the request of individual customers.
Another tip that I find helpful all year round when it comes to eating out is asking a friend or partner to read the menu for me, without me having to look. That way I get to eat what I want; not what I think I should have.
Practice body positivity or body neutrality
When society and advertisements are telling you that you need to lose weight or buy this exercise machine or stop eating certain foods, it’s important to have your own arsenal of positive or neutral thinking in an attempt to combat this.
I’m recommending both body positivity and body neutrality because different things work for different people.
For some, trying to force a sense of positivity about yourself can simply add more stress onto your mental health, which is why practicing neutral self-talk can be really helpful.
Some examples of body neutrality mantras include: “I accept my body how it is”, “I am more than my appearance”, “my legs help me walk to my friend’s house, and I am grateful for that”, “my stomach helps me digest delicious food”.
Ultimately, it’s not going to be an easy process, especially if you’re having to unlearn years of guilt and shame associated with food and the holidays. It’s also not going to be a linear journey, as with everything, you will have good moments and tough moments. But what’s important is that you keep going. The holidays should be a happy time for all, without feelings of guilt.