The holidays can be stressful for health-conscious individuals. Beginning with Halloween and continuing through Thanksgiving and the December holidays, each occasion has its food temptations. Many of these can be emotionally fraught as well; no amount of explaining that you’re trying to lose weight, avoid dairy or cut back on sugar is going to remove the sting of you refusing your mother-in-law’s famous pumpkin gingerbread cheesecake.
People tend to do one of two things when it comes to facing all this holiday temptation: become overly rigid and filled with anxiety at holiday gatherings where food is involved, or go completely off-plan and eat whatever comes in range for a couple of months regardless of how it makes them feel physically.
I’d like to suggest a middle path: giving yourself permission to deviate from the norm. What does that mean? Well, it depends on what your “norm” happens to be.
If your norm is to become rigid, refuse even a bite of your mother-in-law’s pumpkin cheesecake, joylessly turn your nose up at the plethora of holiday delicacies before you while virtuously nibbling on a carrot stick and giving yourself an ulcer over the constant refusal to try “just a bite”, my advice to you is: relax! If the food on offer won’t actually kill you or make you incredibly sick (i.e., in the absence of food allergies or extreme food sensitivities), is there any real harm in taking just a bite of your mother-in-law’s pride and joy pumpkin cheesecake or your niece’s famous sticky toffee pudding? Can you fill your plate with foods that fit more closely with how you eat on a daily basis (maybe make/bring these dishes yourself) and take little tastes of a few other dishes in which the cooks have a lot of emotional investment?
In a perfect world, everyone important to you would understand why you eat the way you do and respect that, or at the very least they’d have no emotional attachment to how you eat. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Most of us live in a world full of people who express love through food. I’m not suggesting you completely abandon your convictions, insert a noodle where your spine used to be and capitulate to every individual culinary whim in a gathering of two-dozen friends and family, I’m just suggesting you weigh the cost of taking that bite against the cost of not taking that bite and make the decision that works for you, not just in terms of your diet, but in terms of your relationships and your anxiety level. If giving yourself permission to loosen the reins just a tiny bit (again, while not compromising your overall health) helps you sail through holiday gatherings with less anxiety, by all means, do that. It’s okay.
If your norm is to go wild, throw your usual eating pattern out the window and indulge in mass quantities of sugar and trans fats for six or eight weeks until you’re completely kugel-wasted and physically miserable, I’d like to suggest a similar approach to the above: relax! It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You don’t have to eat an entire plate of kugel. You can have just a bite or two and make your grandmother happy. If leftovers get sent home with you, you don’t have to eat them! You can give yourself permission to set aside a small taste to enjoy later and then throw the rest away.
That’s right: you can throw leftovers away. You don’t have to eat them. I know the idea of that makes many people uncomfortable, especially those of us who were raised with the spectre of starving children in developing countries. To our parents and grandparents, throwing away food was the basest of sin (not to be confused with the bassist of sin, which of course is Geezer Butler). But here’s the thing: if the item you’re throwing away is a nutrient-deficient amalgamation of stripped/milled grains, sugar, oxidized fats, chemicals, and other ingredients that do not support health in you or anyone else, does it really count as food?
When you cut coupons or helpful articles out of the newspaper (this is a thing we oldsters used to do before smart phones, just go with me here), do you feel any qualms about chucking the rest of the paper into the recycling bin? No. You got what you wanted out of it, and you don’t need the rest of it. The newspaper can’t feel pain or rejection. The same is true of all that edible stuff we collectively refer to as “food”. If you look forward all year to your grandmother’s kugel, your mother-in-law’s pumpkin gingerbread cheesecake or the peanut butter nougats your son discards from his Halloween candy stash, if the taste of those foods are integral to your holiday experience, if family bonds will be damaged by your refusal to eat them, if a taste or two won’t actually make you sick, then have a taste and throw the rest away. You got what you wanted from it, whether it be warm fuzzies on your part or the part of someone you love, and you don’t need the rest. Make a donation to a hunger relief agency for every container you toss, if that helps you part with it, but get rid of it. Keeping and eating it won’t do you or anyone else any good.
If you’re having trouble deciding which holiday dishes to fill up on and which to taste and toss, ask yourself: will my health be better served if I eat more of this? If not, taste it and toss the rest away.
Most of all, give yourself a break this holiday season. Look after your health. Eat more of what makes you feel good, and eat less of what makes you feel bad. Give yourself permission to break out of old patterns and settle into new ones that better support your health, both physically and emotionally. That will allow you to greet the new year with a renewed commitment to your own well-being rather than greeting it with an extra 20 pounds and a handful of damaged relationships.