diets · eating · holidays

Eat! Don’t Eat! Holiday Magazine Mixed Messages

xmas-dessertFor over a month now Canadian magazines like Canadian Living and Chatelaine, similar to Women’s Day in the US, have featured holiday recipes–from baking to appetizers to Christmas dinner and Boxing Day brunch (that’s the day after Christmas, for those who live south of the Canada-US border)–these recipes don’t skimp on sugar, fat, chocolate.  See Chatelaine’s “Nine candy recipes to sweeten up the holidays” and Canadian Living’s Seven easy and impressive trifle recipes.”

And then there are the magazines, sometimes the very same magazines, that tell us how to navigate the holiday parties and buffet tables, the lunches and the dinners and the cocktail hours and the potlucks, the special treats left out at the office, free for all takers.

These articles prime us to deal with the excessive amounts of food available through the holidays. And they’re usually put in terms of survival, like “Survive the Holidays without Gaining Weight” and, on the Chatelaine website, “The Twelve Days of Fitness.

“The Twelve Days of Fitness” is a program designed to help us “beat the bulge” through the holidays:

Get ready to beat the holiday bulge! Together with celebrity trainer Ramona Braganza, we’ve designed a 12-day pre-holiday workout challenge to get you through the indulgent festive season and kick-start your fitness routine for the New Year. With Ramona’s 3-2-1 Method, you’ll get a full-body workout that combines three minutes of cardio, six minutes of circuit exercises and a one minute core exercise — for a total of just 10 minutes a day. Plus, every day Ramona will share a fitness or nutrition tip in an exclusive video (the same tips she gives to her star clients Jessica Alba, Halle Berry, Anne Hathaway and Scarlett Johansson). Get ready to follow along with our handy workout chart, below, and feel your best for the holidays.

Anyway, I don’t know about you, but to me these mixed messages — about indulgence on the one hand and keeping things in check on the other hand — are just annoying.

First of all, the whole idea of decadence and indulgence is irritating. As I’ve said before in my post on “Why Food Is Beyond Good and Evil,” if we don’t demonize certain foods they’re not as attractive.  But these foods are always set up as temptations that must be resisted.

I’m a big fan of intuitive eating, which encourages people to be mindful and pay attention to their hunger when eating. I find that if I am able to pay attention, I can pretty much eat what I want at holiday parties. The only thing I need to be aware of is the quantity.

For me, one of the worst feelings I can have is the feeling of having eaten too much. I’m not talking about the regret of it all. No, I mean literally the physical feeling of having put more food into my tummy than it can comfortably accommodate.

The idea that you can counterbalance day after day of mindless eating beyond comfort by doing a few workouts is also misleading. It just doesn’t work that way.  You can work out all you like, but eating more than feels comfortable is still bound to cause…well…discomfort.

My own approach to holiday eating is still a bit haphazard. As I said before, if I pay attention, then I can eat what I like and stop when I’ve had enough.  If I don’t pay attention, that’s less likely to happen.  I’m probably going to switch to auto-pilot and go beyond my comfort zone.

But I certainly don’t approach particular foods with the “I shouldn’t” attitude. And I like to think of the holidays as another one of those occasions, like vacations or illness or travel or being too busy at work, that can throw me off of my routine.

Rather than clinging to a workout schedule in order to “undo” what I did at a party or a dinner the day before, I like to stick as closely to my regular schedule of swimming, biking, and running as possible because it grounds me and makes me feel good. Sometimes, it’s the only part of my routine that I can keep in place.

The more grounded I feel, the more likely I am to take care of myself at all of the different events.  Stopping eating before I need to undo my belt is one way of taking care of myself.

But back to the mixed messages we see in the media at this time of year.  I think it’s worse for women. “Eat!” and  “Don’t Eat!” are just another version of the double bind that feminists have called our attention to for decades.

No different from “be sexy but not too sexy” and “be assertive but not aggressive” and “be career-oriented but not at the expense of your children,” the magazines encourage us to cook elaborate, high calorie foods, mostly for other people. We are either not to eat them, or, if we do, we are supposed to “reverse the damage” through exercise.

I understand that all of the festivities can be stressful and that tables full of food can overwhelm people. Of course, there’s a very good chance that mindfulness will elude us at times. But it’s a much more self-nuturing to approach the season with confidence that we can look after ourselves and slow down enough to make conscious choices about how best to do that.

Instead of getting caught up in the whole “eat” and “don’t eat” narratives, why not try instead just to “pay attention”?




7 thoughts on “Eat! Don’t Eat! Holiday Magazine Mixed Messages

  1. great post, but I prefer to never ever let magazines tell me how to think…messes you up:P

  2. I hate those mixed messages because it even more explicitly links food consumption & dieting with physical activity. Physical activity shouldn’t be done to “undo bad food”…this mentally keeps people from being active!!

  3. I’m reminded of an episode of Friends from many years ago. Ross and Chandler get trapped outside the flat on the fire escape, and need to climb back in the window (I think… something very like this). Anyway, at one point Chandler has to ask Ross how much he weighs in order to gauge the logistics of getting back in safely. Ross says something like: “I’d prefer not to answer; I’m still carrying a bit of holiday weight.”

    This is of course a laugh track moment. But i’ve always loved it because Ross is actually fairly comfortable here, saying: look, man, it was just Christmas + Hannukah. I’ve gained a bit because that’s what we do at the holidays – we eat festively, knowing it’s a once-a-year thing, and knowing that eating festively is pleasurable and comforting. It will come off again – because my regular lifestyle will return my body to its normal, comfortable weight. But right now it’s still with me and I don’t want to identify with it.

    Now, Tracy and Sam, I know you’ll say Ross should simply own the weight and be confident knowing it will come off as he returns to his normal routine. But of course we don’t work like that – acceptance comes in many forms. So there’s the good plan Tracy outlines – pay attention – but there’s also Ross’s option: eat, enjoy, gain if that happens, note the gain, know it’s not forever, accept and move on. This is the circle of human life. Acceptance beats guilt every time.

    1. I think we’re agreeing. I don’t want to say no one (myself included) is going to gain weight if they pay attention and eat mindfully. I do want to say that it’s just not enjoyable to eat to the point of being stuffed and uncomfortable (kind of by definition being uncomfortable isn’t enjoyable). So yes, by all means, eat, enjoy, gain some weight! It’s that time of year when we feast on yummy high fat foods more than we usually do.

  4. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    Over the next few weeks we’ve committed to blogging about all the food anxiety that the holidays bring. There’s so much diet talk. Here’s a post from a few years ago in that spirit. Keep an eye out for our series in the weeks ahead.

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