Eight years ago I posted about the mixed messages in magazines and online during the holidays, where we are at once surrounded by incredible recipes for special occasions (see the Canadian Living feature “Holiday Treats Packed with Love”) and by strategic guidelines for navigating the holidays without gaining weight (i.e. “if you’re at a party, position yourself away from the food table” — I said to myself never). My post “Eat! Don’t Eat! Holiday Magazine Mixed Messages” rings true today too, with the more recent twist over this decade of social media as a major source of these conflicting narratives of indulgence and deprivation.
Really what this all means to me is that many people live a tortured, socially and culturally induced relationship with food that makes a direct experience of pleasurable eating some sort of small victory. I don’t even know if it’s possible to make it through an entire evening during the holidays without being exposed to at least one person, if not multitudes, loading up their plate with holiday treats packed with love while saying “I really shouldn’t.”
Do I have a solution for this? Not really. My main strategy is DO NOT ENGAGE. A party is not the time to explain to people that we live in a toxic diet culture that has robbed so many of the simple pleasure of holiday eating. It is, after all, just eating. It does not (as I recently read in Geneen Roth’s wonderful book Women, Food and God) lead to rapture. Neither does eating to the point of the “oh-gollys” (a term coined by a high school friend of mine to describe the feeling of “oh golly, I ate too much.”) No one wants to have that conversation at that moment.
Another reason not to engage is that it is very likely to lead into talk of new year’s resolutions (i.e. “indulge” now and put the deprivation off until later). A food table at a party is not the place to remind people that they will not in fact be a different person on January 1st, and deprivation then will feel just as deprivation-y as it will right now.
The final reason not to engage is that no matter how fortified I feel I am against the onslaught of mixed messages, where what I believe and know to be true hits up against a lifetime of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” I too can slide into second-guessing myself if I’m exposed too long to the dominant narrative. I’ve worked hard to combat it and I don’t want to go there, especially when I’m trying to enjoy myself and a delicious piece of vegan brie with hot red pepper jelly on a slice of olive oil-brushed crostini.
I wish I had more of a “how-to” today, but really all I have to offer is my best wishes for an enjoyable season and however much luck you need to get to the other side, where, thankfully, we will all still be the same people we are today.
I’m a big fan of intuitive eating and try to practice it in my daily life. I have blogged about it often, making commitments and recommitments to it over the life of the blog. It’s an approach to eating, championed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, originally in the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, first published in 1995 and now in its fourth edition. They also have a great website that outlines the main principles of this approach and provides basic information about it through a blog, links to the books, and an active online community that people can join.
I had to smile when Sam sent me this “intuitive eater’s holiday bill of rights,” by Evelyn Tribole, self-described as “The Original Intuitive Eating Pro.” The festive season is upon us, and with it many holiday events with food, glorious food, as a focal point. I for one love the seasonal favourites, from sugar cookies to Christmas cakes jammed with dried fruits, nuts, and bursting with flavour. I love vegan cheese boards and special hors d’oeuvres that no one much takes the time to make at other times of year. And I’m a big fan of cozying up with a mug of hot cider made extra yummy with cinnamon and cloves.
Last year most of us had many fewer gatherings, if we gathered at all (I didn’t). So we have the added bonus this year of being in a COVID lull (I won’t say we’re on the other side of COVID quite yet because I don’t want to tempt the heavens) that enables us to gather with friends and family, not just in homes, but also at restaurants.
So…there will be food and people. And where these two come together, so do the mixed messages, the pronouncements from people about how “they really shouldn’t,” the pressure to eat this once-a-year thing that [insert rarely seen member of the family] made just for you because you’ve loved it since you were a kid, a table abundant with choice and more than you can possible comfortably eat, and maybe even food police who ask “should you be eating that?” It challenges even the most skilled intuitive eaters among us. The Bill of Rights will come in handy.
You have the right to savour your meal without cajoling or judgment, without discussion of calories eaten or the amount of exercise needed to burn off said calories.
This, like all the items on the Bill of Rights, would seem to go without saying. After all, we are adults. And adults get to choose their food, their portions, and the speed with which they eat it. If I want to savour a thing, I savour it. That is the whole point of festive foods! To be enjoyed. Enjoy!
2. You have the right to enjoy second servings without an apology.
No worries there in my family. We are big on second servings at family dinners all year round and I’m thankful for that. As an intuitive eater, knowing that a second portion awaits if I want it translates into taking a moderate first portion that allows me to check in with how I’m feeling and making an informed decision about whether I want more and what I want more of.
3. You have the right to honor your fullness, even if that means saying “no thank you” to dessert or a second helping of food.
You know that feeling of having had enough (or too much) and not having room for dessert. When the food is as delicious as it is this time of year, that can happen. Sometimes we deal with this in my family by making a group decision to have dessert later, when we are likely to enjoy it more because we have space. But regardless of what others are doing, I know that’s always an option for me. And though it is sometimes are to put off for later what everyone else is enjoying right now, it is really hard to truly enjoy, savour, and taste something when I’m already at 9/10 or 10/10 or 11/10 on the “fullness scale.” I would rather disappoint a “food pusher” (thankfully I don’t have any in my immediate family or circle) than stuff myself beyond what is comfortable.
4. It is not your responsibility to make someone happy by overeating, even if it took hours to prepare a special holiday dish.
We are all adults here. Food is a lot of people’s “love language,” but that doesn’t mean we have to eat when we don’t feel like it.
5. You have the right to say “no thank you,” without an explanation, when offered more food.
I see a recurring theme here — “no thank you” is good enough. Indeed, given how many people explain their “no thank you” by food-shaming themselves or moralizing their decision or literally talking about their weight or their diet, I wish more people would say “no thank you” without an explanation.
6. You have the right to stick to your original answer of “no” even if you are asked multiple times. Just repeat “No, thank you, really.”
Really! Usually I meant it the first time and I do not appreciate being cajoled.
7. You have the right to eat pumpkin pie for breakfast.
Or whenever. Or whatever.
What I like about this is that it dispels some myths about intuitive eating, which is that if we release ourselves from the “diet mentality food rules” we will eat all the time, and always be reaching for desserts. That hasn’t been the case for me, and it’s not the way it goes for most people who find that intuitive eating works for them (it’s not for everyone, and Sam has blogged about some of its shortcomings). It’s as much about knowing when to say “no,” based on what you feel like eating and your own inner fullness meter, as it is about knowing when to say “yes,” also based on what you feel like eating and your own inner fullness meter.
Another issue that comes up for me during the holidays, also related to intuitive eating, is that eating isn’t an act of defiance. If I approach the holiday spread with an “I’ll show you!” attitude, I am once again being motivated by external forces rather than internal guidance. Chances are, I will eat more than I want and will not pay any attention to what I actually feel like doing. I may also shame others who are holding back, not respecting their decisions (again, when others get into the calorie/diet/food moralizing explanations for their own choices it’s hard, but I try not to engage).
Since embracing intuitive eating, I approach the holidays with confidence, eager anticipation, and sincere gratitude for the privilege of abundance in my life — not just food, but also friends and family and opportunities to gather. But that doesn’t mean some of these situations aren’t fraught. The Intuitive Eating Bill of Rights is a great set of principles for navigating some of that fraught-ness.