The holiday season can be a difficult time to navigate when you have an eating disorder. Whether you have family obligations, feel stress due to expenses this time of year or feel that this round of holidays will be different and likely more challenging than holiday seasons in the past—all can be anxiety-inducing circumstances. All the emotions, pressure and expectations around this time, especially while in eating disorder recovery, make it so important to lean on tools to help cope. Here are five tips on how to incorporate Intuitive Eating principles into each day to help you enjoy the season.
1. Focus on Food Flexibility
Food flexibility encompasses the idea that all foods fit while incorporating Intuitive Eating principles such as “reject the diet mentality” and giving ourselves “unconditional permission to eat.” This mindset allows eating to be intuitive, imperfect, free from food rules and nourishing for the brain, body and soul.
The holiday season is a great opportunity to practice protecting your food boundaries by refusing to allow external influences to tell you what to eat and when to eat. This is the time to remember that all foods have nutrition to offer the body. Yes—all foods! When food is deemed as “healthy” or “unhealthy,” pleasure and satisfaction of the food are taken out of the experience and eating becomes stressful. This creates black and white thinking that can keep you stuck in the cycle of experiencing shame and guilt after eating. Rejecting the diet mentality allows you to build autonomy and self-efficacy in your food choices, all while moving toward a “gentle nutrition” approach.
2. Embrace Your Intuition
Holidays can be stressful, especially for those in recovery from an eating disorder. This can make it tough to find awareness of our body cues and intuition. Try to bring some extra awareness to your interoceptive cues—that is, your feelings of hunger, of fullness, of satisfaction and overall, how your body is feeling. Listen to any bodily sensations that indicate or signal that you are experiencing hunger. This includes a growling or grumbling stomach, a slight headache, inability to focus or lack of energy. For those feeding their body every 2-3 hours, the first sign of hunger can actually feel like our thoughts beginning to drift toward food. As explained above, this should be honored, not denied. As soon as you recognize biological hunger, make time to eat. Prioritize eating as a way to practice self-care and body-respect by setting aside time to have a meal that is both physically and psychologically satisfying.
3. Give Yourself Unconditional Permission to Eat
Avoiding your favorite holiday food will lead to feelings of deprivation and cravings. By giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, you are removing the can’t and shouldn’t verbiage from the eating experience. Practice allowing yourself to eat the foods you like without shame or judgment. Make turkey equivalent to pumpkin pie or fruits equivalent to chocolates. Put all foods on the same playing field! Beware of giving yourself “pseudo-permission” by telling yourself you can eat what you like but only under certain circumstances. If we don’t relinquish control over our bodies, then we can become stuck in the cycle of holding onto guilt about the food. Don’t eliminate any food groups. No food group is more important than the other. Observe how your body feels when eating holiday foods and how satisfying it is to your taste buds. Excite your palate with multiple flavors and different textures.
4. Savor the Holiday Flavors
During the holiday season we want to encourage you to embrace the unique flavors and the food traditions with your family, friends and support systems. As important as it is to honor our stomach hunger, it is also important to honor our heart hunger. This can be done by giving yourself permission to seek pleasure in your food, including at social settings and potlucks. Figure out what you really want to eat by paying attention to the savoring sensations (taste, texture, aroma, appearance and temperature) associated with eating. Ask yourself, “What sounds good?”
5. Remember Gratitude and Grace
Don’t forget to practice gratitude and grace during this exciting and chaotic time of the year. Give yourself some grace for navigating the struggles and triggers that will arise during the holiday meals if you are in recovery from an eating disorder. Practice gratitude for the food that is nourishing your mind, body and soul and for the memories you are making during this holiday season. Food is much more than fuel, but also a way to bring those we love together and connect.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to Center for Discovery. We’re here for you, even during the holiday season, when you need a place to turn.
Julia Cassidy, MS, RDN, CEDRS, is the director of nutrition and wellness for the adolescent programs at Center for Discovery. Julia has worked for Center for Discovery the past 17 years where she has been involved in the development of the dietary programs for the eating disorders division and mental health division of Discovery Behavioral Health. Julia is a certified eating disorder specialist supervisor and a licensed body positive facilitator. Julia is on the SIG Oversight Committee with AED (Academy for Eating Disorders) and she is the chair-elect for BHN (Behavioral Health Nutrition), Didactic Practice Group through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Julia is passionate about helping individuals heal the relationship with food and their body. Part of her work is teaching self-compassion and embracing the idea of total embodiment and food healing.
Theresa Carmichael, RD, earned her Bachelor of Science degree in foods & nutrition from San Diego State University. Theresa has been working with adults and adolescents via behavioral health nutrition in all levels of care at Discovery Behavioral Health since 2014. She has found a passion working with patients of all ages struggling with a variety of mental health and eating disorder diagnoses.