A friend of mine once told me that he and his cousins weighed themselves before and after Thanksgiving dinner, and whoever weighed more after the meal won a cash prize. On the other side of the food-behavior spectrum, I’ve known friends and relatives to abstain from everything but plain turkey, turning their nose up at those who fill their plates with delicious Thanksgiving goodness as though they were the winners of a nonexistent self-control competition.
Before I knew more about disordered eating and the toxic all-or-nothing food culture in the United States, these behaviors seemed normal to me. I associated bingeing with going hard and having fun, and restriction with admirable control of one’s mind and body. These perceptions are unfortunately common, but they are wrong. There is a real danger in perceiving food habits in black-and-white: bingeing or restricting, both are equally bad for your physical and mental health.
Last holiday season, I found myself consumed with anxiety over the prospect of unexpected treats at work and full plates of food with family. I fueled all my energy into resisting the temptation to indulge in anything more than an occasional Christmas chocolate. I made it to New Year’s Day without gaining weight, and I felt absolutely victorious. Complaints of holiday weight gain from my peers grew exponentially, and I couldn’t relate. But was my holiday season fun? No. It was miserable. Restriction is miserable. I watched longingly as my friends laughed and talked as they snacked on homemade cookies, while I sat in the corner trying to use the force to launch the sweets out the window.
You are allowed to indulge, not only on holidays but whenever you want. There are no “good” or “bad” foods, just foods that are better in moderation. There’s no shame in eating more “junk” during this season than you would the rest of the year, but that doesn’t mean you need to eat all the things or nothing at all.
So, how do you go about identifying and avoiding toxic food culture? While this is different for everyone, I have found the best tactic is to allow yourself to live in the grey. Maybe one night you feel like having one more cocktail than usual with your friends. Allow yourself to say, “screw the calories,” and enjoy yourself! On the other hand, if everyone at the office Christmas party is stuffing themselves with treats to the point of overfullness, understand that you don’t have to participate. Listen to your hunger and fullness cues, and separate yourself from any pressure you might feel to conform or say, “fuck it.”
I get it: we all mess up our nutrition intake from time to time, but that doesn’t mean you throw healthy choices out the window and start again tomorrow. Imagine if you had 1,140 dollars, a dollar for every minute in your day. If you lost 10 of them, would you just throw the rest of the cash away? No! The same goes for food habits. While it is important to separate yourself from binging and restricting behaviors, give yourself grace. In the end, two Santa-shaped cookies aren’t going to kill you.