Christmas is coming and some of you may not be filled with Christmas cheer as you worry about how you will navigate the lack of routine, changes in the way you may eat, delicious foods that may be on your ‘naughty list’ are everywhere, all of which leads to a feeling of dread and panic rather than of joy and peace.
With so many mixed messages out there about how to eat, it can feel like a minefield and before you know it, Christmas has been and gone and you didn’t enjoy it because you were too worried about that number on the scales.
Don’t get me wrong, if you have been actively trying to improve your health and wellbeing for the past few months, it is understandable you don’t want to lose progress you have made, but how can you get the balance between this and not missing out on celebrating with your friends and family.
Values Based Goals
Christmas is a time we eat to celebrate. The food we eat is almost ritualistic and is about togetherness, memories and tradition. One way we can consider how to enjoy this without losing sight of our longer term goals is to consider values based goals. Values are guiding directions that tell you how you want to live your life¹. The more you can align with your values, the more you will travel in the direction you want to go in.
For example if you have values of health, social connectedness and caring, you can consider these when making choices. Sometimes going for that Christmas meal rather than avoiding it to stick to a diet, will be the right choice, it aligns with your value of social connectedness and care- being there for your friends and offering yourself some fun and relaxation as an act of self care.
Sometimes self care may be declining the social event because your diary is too packed out and you’re exhausted and run down; what you need at that moment is a quiet night in and some nourishing food, because you also want to consider your value of health.
We need to get this balance and offer ourselves flexibility to be able to listen to our needs and live more authentically in the moment. For example, If you only consider your health and stay in all the time to avoid Christmas food, then you will probably be miserable and lonely, if we only consider social connectedness you may end up burnt out and feeling like you have overdone the Christmas food- the best approach is usually the middle ground.
Take charge not control
Often people do not feel they can trust themselves around food, ‘if they start, they won’t be able to stop’. If this is you, you could try and take charge, rather than clinging onto control². The problem with control is it means rules and rigidity. When there are rules such as ‘bad foods’ that must not be eaten, ‘don’t eat carbs’, ‘don’t eat after 18.00’, it becomes difficult to stick to these at all times because life happens. This is especially true at Christmas, and it is well known that deprivation only leads to us craving the forbidden fruit. Once the rule is broken, this is then considered a failure and this is translated as ‘I am a failure’, ‘ I am bad for eating that bad food’. These thoughts cause us to feel this is too hard and we are not capable and therefore we give up- it’s all or nothing!
If we take charge this means we are making the decisions, but using guidelines to give us structure and tools. Guidelines are like an umbrella and lots of different things can fit under that umbrella. This flexible approach , means that we can apply the values based goal approach discussed above, and find the middle ground or the balance that means we can both respect our health goals whilst nurturing other areas of our lives.
Eat with Awareness
When we eat without awareness we may eat foods without choosing to; we have eaten it before we realised; we didn’t even taste the food or we may realise after we didn’t even really want it.
By taking charge, we are then being led by more internal factors to help us decide what to eat and how much, rather than by external rules. This means we can eat all the foods around at Christmas, but if we do this with awareness we will notice how this is making us feel. Keep checking in as you eat the food and ask yourself- am I enjoying this, is this satisfying me, do I feel comfortably full, is this making me feel good, is this really hunger or am I actually stressed? Notice when you are enjoying the food less, am I eating this because I want to or because I feel pressured, just because it’s there etc.
This is a skill to be practised but it does offer you a way to take charge and start to build trust in yourself around food again.
Remember, often we feel out of control around a food because we have told ourselves we are not allowed it- this means we have been craving it and when we then eat some of that food we eat lots in case we are not allowed to eat it ever again- rules are often a false sense of control.
Try where you can to offer yourself compassion, you may not always make the choices that make you feel good, or that align with your values or goals, but that’s because you’re human. It doesn’t mean you are incapable or a failure, it just offers you an opportunity to learn for the future- what would you change, what were you missing, did that mince pie really ruin the rest of your day? Be inquisitive so you can learn and move forward, rather than getting stuck in self defeating thoughts that hold you back.
Remember you don’t have to earn your food, it’s a basic human need to eat, not something that you get as a reward if you are ‘good’ enough.
- Try not to use the strategies of depriving yourself of food all day to ‘allow’ yourself your Christmas meal out that evening or overcompensate with ‘I will be good tomorrow’, or ’ I will earn the calories through exercise’. By not having regular meals or depriving yourself, this can actually increase our chances of overeating as you are over hungry when you do finally eat.
- Having regular meals throughout the day make sure you do not get overly hungry, your blood sugars remain more stable and you will not be ravenous when you do go to eat, meaning you will be more able to take charge and eat with awareness.
- Keep hydrated, this means our brains will be more equipped for decision making rather than emotional responses to situations and it helps with our energy levels and mood too (along with lots of other important jobs in the body!).
- If you are at a buffet, it may be a good idea to get a decent plate of food rather than pick at bits. Our brains are more able to register how much we ate if it is all on one plate and this means you are more likely to notice when you are full.
- Listen to your body, it is unlikely to want chocolate and mince pies for 30 days of December if you tune into it. Sometimes only a mince pie (other Christmas foods are available!) will do, sometimes you really crave some veggies or a light soup. Using your internal cues can help you decipher what is going to make you feel good in the moment.
I hope this helps you to find some peace with yourself this festive season.
Disclaimer. This is general information and is not meant to be individual advice. If you are struggling with your relationship with food and want further support with this then please ask for professional help from a Dietitian or a Registered AfN Nutritionist.
 Harris, R. (2019) ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Second Edition). New Harbinger Publications.
 May, M. (2010) Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. Greenleaf Book Group Press