I grew up in an Italian family where food was always the centre of every celebration, especially at Christmas.
Like many families, we looked forward to Christmas every year because we knew there would be food galore, from seafood to cakes and lots of beautiful dishes in-between. Eating food at Christmas brought people of all ages so much joy.
But for many adults today, Christmas means something very different.
"The idea is if I lose weight now or in January, then I can eat whatever I like at Christmas and not feel guilty."
The ‘silly season’ signals the development of food-related anxiety about eating too much and gaining weight.
Many people feel as though they have to ‘prepare’ for Christmas by going on a diet before 25 December. They may restrict their eating at Christmas, resist the temptation to reach for special treats or go without eating at their family celebrations if they feel their family are too generous with food.
Or, they’ll decide to follow a diet in the New Year to lose the weight gained over Christmas. The idea is if I lose weight now or in January, then I can eat whatever I like at Christmas and not feel guilty.
I understand that at this time of year, there are a lot more social events and celebrations happening. There is more temptation and less space to hide if you are trying to stick to a diet.
The season also comes with a lot of marketing pressure, as media outlets and social media influencers encourage you to shed your Christmas kilos and get a new summer body: ‘a new year, a new you’ apparently.
I just feel like modern dieting culture has a lot of people in a really big headlock. For some people who do not have health concerns, the need to always follow some sort of diet has become consuming.
Instead of dieting, we could aim to have a neutral relationship with food that is absent of suffering, constant dieting or guilt about eating while celebrating.
How to dump the dieting guilt this season
As a country, we love to diet. A 2017 survey of over 1,000 Australians aged 18-64 years, commissioned by the Dietitians Association of Australia, found nearly half of adults had actively tried to lose weight in the past year.
This is despite the fact we know that diets don’t work. Research suggests that an overwhelming majority of people (from 80-95 per cent, depending on the paper you read) who lose weight in the short term will regain the weight they lost later on, plus more in the long term.
Even still, so many people see dieting behaviours – cutting out food groups, eliminating carbs, eating gluten-free when you do not have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity – as normal. Constant dieting may be common, but that doesn’t make it ‘normal’.
Regular dieting often creates an unhealthy sense of guilt around food. The more we restrict the food we eat, the more we think about food and the more likely we are to binge on food. Dieting at Christmas can rip the joy out of the season.
Instead of dieting, we could aim to have a neutral relationship with food that is absent of suffering or guilt about eating while celebrating.
I believe in a ‘health at every size’ approach to dietetics that focuses on health-promoting behaviours and weight neutrality.
If you want to eat healthily during the Christmas period, you can still do that without dieting. Consider what good health means to you because ‘healthy’ is such a subjective term.
Question your motives and intentions behind your eating habits. If you are dreading going out to eat or fear eating at a Christmas event because you will have less control over your food choices and may gain weight, then maybe it's time to reassess your relationship to dieting, exercise and food.
It's all about perspective, and a well mind and body. Having a positive state of mental health where you can reap joy from food is an important aspect of self-care.
So as we move into the holiday season, just remind yourself that eating patterns during a time like Christmas are supposed to be different.
'Tis the season to feel positive
Christmas marks a time where we should be excited about eating good food rather than being preoccupied with thoughts like ‘I am so bad for eating all of this food’.
In many cultures, food is what brings people together. We should all be feeling grateful for the generosity of the home cooks who want to feed us, and the delicious meals we have access to.
So as we move into the holiday season, just remind yourself that eating patterns during a time like Christmas are supposed to be different. It's okay and very normal to eat different kinds of food at a celebration and stray from how you usually eat.
Be conscious of the way that you talk to yourself and talk to others about food. After you’ve had a big meal and are feeling full, don’t put yourself down saying things like ‘I’m so naughty for eating so much’.
If you do start to feel guilty for eating too much then remember why you’re gathering with loved ones in the first place. Annual events like Christmas are meant to be about the coming together of family and friends around food. Food is not just fuel. It’s a means of social connection, community and celebration.
Most importantly, remember to be kind to yourself.
Amanda Maiorano is a 'non-diet 'and 'health at every size' Accredited Practising Dietitian.
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