The Christmas period can bring up difficult feelings around food - here's how to deal with them, according to a therapist
words Megan Wallace
The festive period is often billed as the "most wonderful time of the year" and, yeah, for some people it is. But not to sound like the Grinch - though he's an anti-capitalist icon and even predicted the rise of Gen Z green before trend forecasters did - for many, Christmas isn't what the ad industry builds it up to be. It's worth remembering that there are plenty of folk out there who don't celebrate the holiday. There's also the fact that if you happen to work in the retail or hospitality sectors, December feels more like a hellish curse than a blessing. And let's not miss the very important detail that time spent locked up with family often leads to fiery political disputes in between bites of pigs in blankets (or veggie nut roast)...
That's not to say that Christmas can't be a fabulous time for those who partake - but let's drop the rose-tinted specs and get real. It's time to work with the festive raw material and develop realistic expectations around the season and how it is set to impact us. This includes our mental health - and given the December focus on communal meals and being merry, there can be plenty of difficult feelings to contend with when it comes to body image or feelings of shame around food.
But how do we create practical coping strategies and where do we find support with festive food guilt? In order to find out, woo reached out to Dr Beverly Marais, a Chartered Counselling Psychologist, Chartered Scientist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society specialising in eating disorders, and Chance Marshall, therapist and co-founder of high street therapy service Self Space.
What causes festive food shame?
Before you contend with how Christmas makes you feel about food, it can help to know why, exactly, it can be such a triggering time - bringing up self-critical thoughts around food which you might not normally experience.
Firstly, it's all to do with the nature of the season. "The festive period can be a difficult time for anyone who struggles with feelings of food guilt or shame because there is often an emphasis on indulging in rich and high-calorie foods and drinks — which can be triggering," explains therapist Chance Marshall.
"Internally, already stressed, tired and in need of relief at the end of the year, many of us might turn to food for comfort. Externally, when we're at events and gatherings centred around food and drink, we can feel the pressure to conform to expectations and indulge even if we don’t want to," he continues. "The guilt and shame come from feeling out of control with our food or drink intake."
Consuming these kinds of foods or beverages isn't necessarily a problem in and of itself. However, we may experience social food-shaming - who hasn't had a family member making an insensitive comment about the food on your plate? - which is often reinforced at a higher level through cultural messaging around calories or weight gain. "Headlines are rife with Christmas calorie-shaming this time of year, stuff like; 'this is how many calories are really in your Christmas pudding,' and it brings a painful critical lens on people's eating," Marshall adds.
There's a whole lot of mixed messages: expectations that make eating and drinking central to partaking in festive activities but without any change to fatphobic attitudes which are present at all times of the year and place a cultural fixation on how people look and what they eat.
How to cope with and combat feelings of food guilt over Christmas and New Year
Now you have some insight on why Christmas can be triggering, we consulted an expert for some advice on how to cope with these difficult feelings as and when they arise.
First, it's all about acceptance about the nature of the holiday, so that you can prepare yourself. "Normalise that eating is different over the holiday season and acknowledge that people will be eating in excess on occasion and snacking on chocolates or biscuits," says Dr Beverly Marais.
After this point, it can help to envisage what food you may be eating in the coming days and make peace with that. "If you are someone more prone to experiencing negative emotional reactions such as guilt or shame in response to food, it helps to have a plan as to how to approach the days leading up to and post the festive period," says Marais. "Once you have given yourself permission to have certain meals or snacks, it reduces anxiety and leaves you feeling more in control of your relationship with food."
Throughout the process, keep in mind that things don't always go to plan. "Accept that there will be times when things do not go according to plan and try not to catastrophise," she adds. "Be mindful that this is temporary, and you will be back in a regular routine again in January."
And finally, try not to diet during the period - restricting food intake is closely linked with the very feelings of guilt you are trying to escape. "Most importantly, do not restrict or diet as this will create harsh food rules which are likely to be broken, and lead directly to feelings of guilt of shame," concludes Marais. "Practice being kinder to yourself and by giving yourself permission to partake and celebrate in festive activities around food, while still working on holding boundaries within this."
Practical tips for eating mindfully during the holiday season
Mindful eating is a technique sometimes used in treatment for eating disorder recovery and which has been shown to have positive outcomes for individuals struggling with binge eating, food shame or emotional eating (though it is not always recommended for individuals in recovery from anorexia). Instead of focussing on fixed 'rules', it aims to take the emotion out of eating and help individuals feel more in touch with their food needs without feelings of guilt.
Below, Chance Marshall provides some tips for mindful eating that might help you through the festive season.
Pay attention to your hunger and fullness levels: Before you start eating, take a moment to assess whether you're actually hungry or if you're eating for other reasons (such as boredom or stress). During the meal, try to pay attention to your hunger and fullness levels and stop eating when you feel satisfied, rather than stuffed.
Choose foods that are both nutritious and enjoyable: Don't deprive yourself of the special treats that are often part of holiday meals, but try to balance them out with nourishing foods as well. This can help you feel more satisfied.
Avoid eating while multitasking: Try to avoid eating while doing other things, such as watching TV or working at your computer. This can help you be more present and mindful while eating.
Take a moment to appreciate the food you have in front of you and the people you are sharing it with: This can help shift your focus from the food itself to the experience of enjoying a meal with loved ones.
Be easy on yourself: Remember, the holidays are a time to enjoy yourself and the company of others, so try not to put too much pressure on yourself to eat perfectly. It's okay to indulge in your favourite foods and drinks, as long as you do so mindfully and in moderation.
You can find further information on mindful eating via eating disorder charities, such as this fact sheet created by Eating Disorder Victoria - a charity based in Australia.
Coping with eating disorder recovery at Christmas
Thus far, we've focussed on information aimed to help individuals who may experience difficult feelings around food but who do not experience disordered eating. However, as you may well imagine, the negative impacts of the festive period on those with eating disorders is widely acknowledged in medical settings.
In 2019, Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan, NHS Associate Clinical Director for children and young people’s mental health, wrote that; "Living with an eating disorder is a constant struggle but Christmas can be particularly challenging with an increased focus on food, drink and big get togethers."
It's worth noting that the NHS has official guidelines on how to support loved ones struggling with an eating disorder over the festive period, including practical advice such as avoiding questions about weight, serving meals in a buffet style and engaging in activities not focussed on food after each meal.
Whether you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, these guidelines contain important information to read and share.
Further resources and where to get help
Whatever the situation, Christmas and New Year can be a difficult period for anyone when it comes to food and body image. But remember, you're not alone. Whether or not you feel like you can lean on family and friends for an understanding ear, there are many organisations dedicated to giving support when it is needed.
This includes Beat, a charity which offers a free, confidential helpline 365 days a year for anyone looking to explore feelings related to an eating disorder (you don't need a formal diagnosis). On weekdays it's available from 9am to midnight and on bank holidays and weekends it's available from 4pm to midnight. They also offer a one-to-one webchat.
Beat also maintains a "helpfinder" tool on their website that allows you to search for support local to you by searching for services in your catchment area.
As with all medical conditions, if you suspect you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder or disordered eating then booking an appointment with your GP is an invaluable first step in order to access a diagnosis and structured and qualified support.
If you or someone you know is in urgent need of support or medical attention please contact 999 or the Samaritans on 116 123.
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