For many of us, the December and end-of-year celebrations mean big, indulgent meals and changes in our normal eating habits. After the initial pleasure of eating, this can cause stress and guilt in those who are trying to watch what they eat. How can we eat during the holiday period without torturing ourselves and deal with these changes in our eating habits? Noémie Lanier, a psychologist at the obesity centre at Hôpital de La Tour is here to provide more information and advice.
For some people, the prospect of meals during the holiday period can be a source of anxiety more than pleasure. How can you cope?
My work involves trying to break down this type of guilt, which in this case, is linked to a specific situation. Feelings of guilt are usually experienced because there are restrictions during the rest of the year. You have not been allowed to eat certain foods for months, and suddenly, you are entering a very dangerous period and you do not know if you will be able to resist temptation and hold out. This often causes anxiety. You therefore have to listen to your body and how it feels. Intuitive eating allows you to feel more confident and regulate your food more naturally.
Is the stress that we experience during periods when we eat more than usual caused by a bigger problem?
Everyone is different, but restricting yourself does create stress. This stress in turn creates temptation, which will make you think about food a lot more. For example, if you are told not to think about a pink elephant, it is very difficult not to think about one. This will often result in what is commonly known as ‘cracking’ and lead to a vicious cycle. Saying to yourself, “Oh well, I have cracked, I will finish the packet and then be good again...” will only make you feel even more guilty as well as make you believe that you are weak and have failed.
However, by not restricting yourself, you do not create the same relationship or source of stress. It is not easy but you will tend to eat more sensibly if you say to yourself, “I like it and I am entitled to it, I am just going to eat as much as I want”. In most cases, intuitive eating means your eating habits will adapt to your hunger and allow you to naturally regulate until the next meal.
At certain times in our lives, we obviously eat more than usual, but the crucial thing is knowing when to stop when we are full. Feelings of guilt are most often caused by this binary relationship, where certain behaviours are fundamentally bad and others are idealised. However, in reality, it is not quite so simple.
Is the holiday period only a problem if we want it to be one?
Even if you have decided to eat better or eat less, I find it hard to believe that you can undo all of your hard work in a week and over a few big meals. This is not going to push you over the edge. However, your body will react if you restrict yourself from certain foods for most of the year and then suddenly change your diet. For example, your body will struggle to keep up if you never eat sugar and then eat it constantly for a week over the holiday period.
Are excess and deprivation as bad as each other?
In reality, they often go together and there is a link between the two. If you say to yourself, “This is it, I am on a diet” and then are really strict with yourself, it is often very hard to keep this up in the long term. You may not overindulge straight away, but compulsive behaviour can develop due to deprivation and frustration. You have to trust that your body knows what is best if you listen to it. It is perfectly capable of regulating itself and it can actually be fun listening to the limits of your body! Besides, we never feel good when we eat too much; we are bloated and suffer from indigestion... it is just not an enjoyable experience.
Therefore, rather than wondering how to cope during the holidays, try to be consistent with your eating all year round.
All of this ultimately means that we are in control and allows us to get through the holidays without coming up against major obstacles. After the holiday period, you need to focus on larger questions related to why you eat in the first place and this is different for everyone. What does it give you, what function does it fulfil? We are in an age where we no longer eat primarily because we are hungry and this creates new situations and new problems.
Do we need to make sure that eating is a pleasurable experience to cope during periods of major changes in our eating habits?
Pleasure is a good place to start. There is nothing fun about eating too much and still wanting more. Pleasure does not need to be linked to excess and overindulgence. It is not just what is on the plate that can be problematic, it is the amount too. Intuitive eating means that sometimes you may skip dessert or not eat breakfast. You do this because you are simply not hungry rather than because you feel guilty and are trying to compensate, which does not help and often has negative effects.
Social pressure can also be a trap. If you are full, try not to force yourself to eat more because you are worried people will think you do not like the meal or are rude. You can have fun and enjoy special moments with your loved ones, but still say that you have had enough to eat. All you need to say is, “Thank you, the meal was lovely, but I am full”.
As long as you do not get frustrated or exaggerate, everything should be fine. The holiday period usually only involves three or four meals, so try not to make it a bigger problem than it actually is, there is nothing to worry about!