"It's ok," you say with an aching belly, grabbing five more cookies from the holiday-patterned tin, "I'm making a resolution in the New Year to get healthy."
You vow that, on January 1st, you will begin the year like a saint--a svelte rabbit-saint, eating only fibrous plants and small amounts of seeds to make up for that pesky annual tradition of holiday weight gain.
And then you get hungry.
Appetite rearing, carb-crazed, you fall into an abyss of chocolate, peanut butter, and ice cream, because that rabbit-supermodel diet just isn’t cutting the mustard.
What if there was a different way to do things this year? What if you could end the cycle of overeating, guilt, restriction, and relapse? What if you could enjoy the holiday season, without feeling deprived or guilty, and not worry about starting the New Year with another tired weight loss resolution?
Spoiler alert: There is another way. I promise.
As a recovered emotional eater and midnight-holiday-cookie burglar, I have a deep understanding of what it’s like to struggle with food. All jokes aside, it’s a painful experience to feel utterly out of control when it comes to eating, to feel like a failure, to feel like every meal holds the heavy potential of salvation or damnation.
Below are my top three tips for helping yourself through the holiday season amidst a sea of temptation – and how to do it with compassion, love, and joy.
Identify your holiday eating style: Do you eat with emotion, or eat your emotions?
Food is pleasurable. There is no denying the link between food and emotions. There are stress eaters, and there are those that eat to celebrate. Emotions are naturally part of the eating landscape.
To eat with emotion is to serve yourself a reasonable portion, on a plate, with a fork, seated at the table. The TV is off, the laptop stowed, and the book closed. No hiding or feeling ashamed. Your focus and full attention is on the food in front of you and you enjoy it fully, slowly, deliberately, luxuriating in every sensual bite.
However, perhaps you eat because you're afraid that if you don't, you’ll cry, go crazy, get bored, feel angry, feel lonely, or take responsibility for something you've been avoiding. You feel guilty, fragile, and volatile, frantically attempting to quell your quaking emotions. This is what it’s like to eat your emotions.
The holidays are full of opportunities to invite either scenario. Which applies to you?
If you recognize that you’re eating your emotions, perhaps you’re using food to cope with feelings that overwhelm you. The below steps may help you.
Deal with your cravings.
First, if you are truly hungry, eat something, girl! Eat a proper meal. A plate cradling a nice pile of colourful veggies, a chunk of protein and a drizzle of healthy fats should do the trick.
If you’re not hungry, and that care package of baked goods from your mum is still squawking at you, tell yourself this: “I can have whatever I want; I just have to wait.” Sometimes cravings are transient, and simply waiting until the moment has passed will be enough to stop them.
However, the object is not necessarily to stop the craving (although you can be open to that happening). The point is to sit with the uncomfortable feeling of desiring something you feel you can’t have to see what comes up.
When you crave food in the absence of real hunger, there is usually a trapped emotion behind it, and food muffles it. Food is used to calm anxiety, to escape from boredom, to distract, or to comfort.
During a craving, ask yourself the following questions. Write them down if it helps. Am I actually hungry? What emotion am I trying to change? What am I afraid to feel? What do I actually need? Sometimes simply bringing awareness to an emotion is enough to make it fade away, much like how shining a light under the bed makes all the monsters disappear.
Forgive yourself when you overeat – start fresh every bite.
Here is a common scenario: You eat too much, feel guilty, then eat like a tiny rodent for a few days to "make up for it." When you eventually crave non-tiny rodent food (like any human woman naturally would), you binge again. This cycle of crime and compensation is endless because one always leads to the other.
Cyclic episodes of overeating and restriction perpetuate themselves as well as the negative feelings they generate. But you can stop the cycle…with forgiveness.
Have compassion for yourself. Accept that there is a natural ebb and flow to emotions and appetite and that life affects the way we eat. If you eat a shortbread cookie (or seven), not all is lost. You can always put down the cookie and start over. Every day, every meal, every bite is fresh and doesn't have to be tainted with the guilt of a previous indulgence.
Forgiving yourself after a binge can be scary because it blocks the common compensatory response (calorie restriction or going on a “diet”), but I believe it's the most important step to ending this exhausting cycle.
Confronting cravings and emotional eating can be messy and uncomfortable. However, if we continue to ignore the emotional urges that compel us to reach for food, we also risk letting the problem get bigger. Never confronting your emotions means never healing from them either.
Often there are layers upon layers of emotions that want to be tended to, and these steps need to be practiced over and over again. Keep trying. The best way to achieve any goal is to simply keep trying. You will know that you are addressing your emotions properly when your cravings begin to fade and become less urgent, less seductive, and less frequent.
May your life (and the holidays!) be delicious!