In a perfect world, holidays are joyful, celebratory, and carefree. In the real world, that’s not often the case—especially the carefree part.
As a health coach, one of the biggest sources of strife that I help my clients manage is the internal dilemma of whether or not they’re going to stick with their healthy eating habits or say “Screw it!” and dive into a plate of real bread stuffing, cornstarch-thickened gravy, and multiple slices of pecan pie.
On one hand, there’s the philosophy that holidays are a special occasion and should be treated as such. And that includes all the traditional carb-laden goodies. On the other hand, there are people who are 100 percent committed to their Primal lifestyle and prepare their holiday feast accordingly.
Let me emphatically state that there’s no right or wrong answer here. But it is something most of us will have to navigate this holiday season, so let’s tackle it together.
Just Don’t Call it a ‘Bad Food Day’
Honestly, I don’t care if you indulge in several servings of green bean casserole or marshmallow-crusted sweet potatoes. What I do care about is the level of guilt you carry around with you after doing so.
What does guilt have to do with food? Guilt is the feeling that you’ve done something wrong. At a young age, most of us are taught the difference between right and wrong. So, in a general sense, you might feel guilty if you stole something, hurt someone, or got caught up in a lie. On the other hand, you might have been rewarded or praised for doing something right (i.e. getting good grades, helping a neighbor, doing chores without being asked).
Examples of Food Guilt:
I shouldn’t have another piece
Dessert/bread/wine is unhealthy
Once I start, I can’t stop
I’ve totally blown it
I don’t want to see the scale tomorrow
Diet culture tells us to feel bad if we overeat or indulge in *forbidden* foods. It says that a higher number on the scale is equal to lower self-worth. Don’t get me wrong, certain foods come with consequences. Depending on your bio-individuality, foods with higher amounts of sugar, industrialized oils, and artificial ingredients might leave you feeling foggy, fatigued, bloated and on the fast-track to chronic disease. But moralizing foods for their good vs bad qualities always backfires.
Metabolism is Influenced by State of Mind
In addition to the heavy emotional baggage you have to carry, deeming certain foods as negative actually discourages metabolic activity.1 It all starts in your hypothalamus, which processes senses, emotions, and biological functions like hunger. When you feel guilty about what you’re eating, the hypothalamus transmits signals that slow your digestion and cause your body to store more calories as fat versus burning them for energy. In theory, saying to yourself “this will make me fat” becomes kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the flip side, when you enjoy food as you’re eating it, the hypothalamus releases pleasure signals that stimulate digestion so that you thoroughly break down food and more effortlessly burn off the calories.
So, it’s not just what you’re eating, it’s what you’re thinking about what you’re eating.
Not only that, negative thoughts can lead to other compensatory behaviours. In this study, researchers analyzed data from 3,177 people, examining the differences between those who experienced food guilt and those who didn’t.2 Across the board, they found that the food guilt group had higher scores in the areas of binge eating, low self-esteem, isolation, and avoidance coping.3
You Can’t Just Let Go of Food Guilt, Can You?
If you’re wired to see foods as good or bad, it’s going to take some unraveling, but it’s completely possible. It’s also completely worth it so you’re not white knuckling it through the holidays. Or worse, yet, beating yourself up about it for days. And as you let go of good guilt, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself eating more intuitively. Here’s how to get started:
Step 1: Challenge your food rules.
We all have them. It’s that little voice inside that says, “you shouldn’t have that” or “stop grazing” or “that’s going to go right to your thighs.” This is all based on your stories or beliefs you created through your experiences growing up. Once you’ve acknowledged one of your rules, confront it. You always have a choice to decide if it’s valid or just reflecting old, outdated programming and no longer serves you.
Step 2: Be curious vs judgmental.
How often are you judging yourself? And not just when it comes to what you eat? You might be so used to being in judgment mode that you don’t even realize when you’re doing it to yourself – or someone else. Try, instead, to be curious. Ask yourself why you think a certain food is bad or where these judgements are coming from. You might find that the beliefs you have aren’t even your own. Also, learn to approach these situations from a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. You can read more about how to do that here.
Step 3: Have a plan.
Nine times out of ten, if you walk into a holiday feast hungry, you’re going to choose foods you might not choose otherwise. That’s why it’s so important to have a plan in advance. My go-to strategies for avoiding impulse binging are to: prioritize protein and fat, make breakfast your most calorically dense meal of the day, and always answer hunger with a meal. You might still indulge, but you’ll feel better about your decision if your body and brain are satiated.
Step 4: Know your triggers.
If you know you can’t pass up a bowl of candy when you’re hungry, don’t put out a bowl of candy (or don’t show up hungry). If you cope with stress by eating or drinking, find healthier ways to decompress. Getting clear on what triggers you is a game-changer in situations like this. And it can save you hours — or even days of grief afterwards.
Step 5: Practice self-compassion.
Being kind to yourself is a skill not everyone has. That’s why it’s so important to practice it on a regular basis. Self-compassion requires empathy and the ability to be fully present with yourself and whatever feelings you’re experiencing — without running away, hiding, or diving headfirst into a bag of M&Ms. You never need to be punished for your actions, so resist the urge to “diet harder” by eating bland chicken breast for three days straight or committing to a steady stream of chronic cardio for the next week. You deserve better.
How to Have a Guilt-Free Feast
It doesn’t matter if you’re paleo, keto, vegan, whatever. Letting go of food guilt is the healthiest move you can make. Use these steps to get to the bottom of your food fixation and get ready to enjoy your holiday feast guilt-free.
Challenge your food rules
Be curious vs judgmental
Have a plan
Know your triggers
Do you experience food guilt? What strategies work for you?
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.