HAES® Matters: Alternative Advice for the Holidays

by Health At Every Size® Blog

From time to time the Health At Every Size® Blog shares HAES Matters “roundtable” posts with our readers. The questions below were posed by the ASDAH Blog Committee to some of ASDAH’s HAES experts. We hope you will comment below with your own questions, answers, and reflections on these HAES matters.

Q: As the holidays descend, so does advice about how to stay healthy during this time of food abundance for so many. Do people really benefit from such advice?

Marsha HudnallA: Marsha Hudnall
It seems the holidays have gotten so far from what I remember as a child back in the 1950s. It was a time of family, everyone getting together, with the highlight of enjoying traditional foods of the season. Of course, for my parents it was likely a more stressful time than I remember, but even so, the stress was probably about many of the same things many of us worry over today – what special something to get for that special someone, and how are we going to get everything done before the big day(s)? There certainly wasn’t the pressure of trying to make sure we didn’t overeat – it was pretty much a given we would eat a lot – and how to trim calories from holiday meals. Instead, most of us ate according to our internal cues because that was the way we ate in those days. We didn’t really know another way. So we ate, and enjoyed, and frequently ate a little more than we normally did because the food was just so darned good and we didn’t get it very often. But we walked away from holiday meals feeling good, if a little overfull. No matter, though. Without guilt and shame about the overeating, we returned to our normal eating patterns and all was good.

As many readers of this blog know all too well, that’s not how things work today. People are exhorted from every angle to be careful about their eating during the holidays. The rich foods of the season carry with them all sorts of dangers, not the least of which is weight gain. Or so the advice goes, although research doesn’t back that up. It seems the most weight gained is by those people who worry about gaining it. No surprise there. It’s just more of the dieting effect that drives eating and metabolic processes in a way that doesn’t support well-being.

Matz1-3.25x2A: Judith Matz
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that normalizes the obsession with food, weight, and dieting. Advice around the holidays is framed as the way to take good care of yourself, but all of the messages about what to eat, what not to eat, how to get thinner, and how to avoid weight gain during this time of year actually create a lot of anxiety. If you follow the latest recommendations about what to eat and/or worry about your body size, you’re likely to pay the price. Focusing on food and weight means you’re less present at holiday gatherings. Eating less than you need or depriving yourself of favorite holiday foods set you up this time of year – as it does throughout the year – to binge at a later time. It’s not uncommon for people to be “good” while with their family, only to find themselves overeating when they return home or are once again by themselves.

Deb BurgardA: Deb Burgard
Hmm, food abundance? I am not so sure. Between the erosion of safety nets like food stamps, loss of Medicaid, record numbers of Americans incarcerated, and ongoing unemployment and underemployment from the worst economy in the memory of most people alive today, I think the question assumes a certain point of view. Even for people who are not worried about how to pay for their food, there is often a history of restricting their intake, an awareness of their food and their bodies being monitored, and a disruption of the fundamental connection to food as a comforting, joyful experience.

Perhaps it is more useful to ask, why do people with economic privilege project our fears and guilt about how much we are consuming onto the bodies of higher-weight people? Ironically, these are people who are much more likely to consume less of everything, but portrayed as ungovernable around food, sexuality, and the civic responsibility not to burden others with their pesky illnesses.

Abundance does not cause anxiety; it bestows a feeling of security. Abundant food, abundant bodies, have been almost universally good in human history. But what about abundance in the context of unfairness, of fears about our vast and ongoing inequities and the limits of the resources of our earthly home? What about the abundance for me but not for you? Or abundance for you but not for me? How can that feel good?

For me, the holidays are times when worlds collide. From childhood I have belonged to multiple families (which keep multiplying with the generations, and my own bond-making with others), and I am aware of the inequities between those families. Even the history of these holidays brings up ways that I feel only commemorate a celebration for certain types of family, and demand that we ignore what was going on for other types of families during these events. I keep wondering, how do we enfold all of our families in a bigger acknowledgement? I am so tired of the demands to make some people invisible. It seems to come from an unwillingness to simply see the truth about how we have treated each other, and that keeps us stuck in our hamster wheels of distractions.

DePatie picA: Jeanette DePatie
In my opinion, unsolicited advice around bodies, exercise and eating is rampant around the holidays. And however somebody may want to dress it up, this unsolicited advice uses shame to address body size and health habits. Study after study indicates that shame does not make people thinner, happier or healthier in the long run. Shame has negative effects on health by increasing the incidence of unhealthy habits and increasing stress (which in itself negatively impacts health). So whether or not the advisor was well intentioned, the net result is not positive. You can see links to a lot of the research on this point here.

Q: What advice would you give on how to navigate the holiday season?

Marsha HudnallA: Marsha Hudnall
Enjoy the holidays, including the traditional foods, regardless of their calorie, fat, carbohydrate or other nutrient content. The holidays are supposed to be about pleasure. Denying some of that pleasure because of the size or shape of bodies, or worry about it, well, that just doesn’t work. At the very least, it drives unhealthy eating as people eat without consciousness, in reaction to feelings of deprivation and shame. Worry about eating and weight during the holidays just ramps up stress. None of us need that.

Matz1-3.25x2A: Judith Matz

      • You have the right to eat what you are hungry for: don’t let anyone else’s judgments get in the way of honoring your own appetite.
      • You have the right not to eat what you’re not hungry for: don’t let anyone pressure you to eat something you don’t want. It’s okay to say “no thank you,” and if that person feels hurt, for example, it’s their responsibility to deal with that feeling – not yours!
  • If certain holiday foods are “glittering” ask yourself if you’ve truly given yourself permission to eat them throughout the year. While people who restrict sweets often find themselves bingeing on holiday cookies, cakes or pies, attuned eaters who have “legalized” sweets typically find that they are comfortable with these foods in their homes because – if they enjoy these sweets – there is always some around.
  • “Normal” eaters sometimes eat past fullness at holiday gatherings. Keep in mind that when you feel in charge of your eating you can decide just how much you want to have, even if you end up feeling too full – that’s a different experience than feeling out of control with your eating.
  • No matter what happens, always stay compassionate with yourself. If you do find yourself overeating, rather than making promises to diet in the New Year, do your best to wait until your next cue of physical hunger to eat exactly what you are hungry for.

For many people who are seeing family from out of town, there is anxiety about whether they’ll be seen as “too fat.” All of the holiday articles about food and weight during this season just feed into that anxiety. It’s a shame that the focus becomes on whether you’ll be thin enough to be acceptable, rather than on the pleasure of seeing your family. If you do have family members who are likely to comment on your weight, consider whether you can preempt this discussion, such as by letting them know ahead of time that the subject of your body size is off limits. If the discussion at the holiday meal turns to topics of dieting, “healthy eating,” and/or weight, consider how to divert the conversation to more interesting and satisfying topics. If that’s not possible, decide what you need to do to protect yourself, even if it means excusing yourself from the table. If there’s no way to escape conversations that revolve around weight (especially yours), make sure to stay compassionate toward yourself and to use your support system to give you the kindness and acceptance you deserve.

Deb BurgardA: Deb Burgard
It comes down to our bonds: how we treat each other. And within ourselves, how we are able to be kind to ourselves, or not. Whatever we are calling “health” cannot exist without attention to those bonds. The systematic cruelties of our world require our disconnections, our numbness to each other and to our own tender dreams. When we pause during the holidays – for those of us who get the chance to – it is an opportunity to break the spell and re-focus on our deep work of loving each other and ourselves. That is my Health at Every Size advice.

DePatie picA: Jeanette DePatie
There are a number of things a person can do to weather the holidays. First and foremost, I think a person should decide on, and be prepared to defend their personal boundaries. You don’t have to agree to talk about your weight or your child’s weight if you don’t want to. Ragen Chastain and I collaborated on a fun Holiday Video/Carol all about boundaries. I think it’s helpful to plan ahead and potentially even practice how you will deal with your nosy aunt or overbearing grandma before you get to your family shindig. I have found it helpful to say things like, “I appreciate your concern but I really don’t want to talk about that right now.” I’ve even had to go so far as to tell various relatives that if they refuse to drop the subject, I would simply be picking up my car keys and leaving. I only had to actually leave once. But there’s no law that says you have to stand by and listen to what anybody has to say about your body or the body of your child. There’s always an opportunity for teaching about the HAES approach, but in my experience, holiday gatherings are already pretty emotionally charged. I usually choose to save education for another day and another setting.

On a personal level I like to think of the holidays as a wonderful time to celebrate my body. Thanksgiving is a great time to be thankful for all the amazing things my body can do. There are so many wonderful activities that allow me to move my body in joyful ways, from holiday shopping to ice skating to dancing the night away on New Year’s Eve. And speaking of New Year’s, I am very careful about the New Year’s resolutions that I choose. This year I’m collecting photos and videos from people who are eager to face the new year without body shaming. People who might be interested should check out the video.

5 Responses to “HAES® Matters: Alternative Advice for the Holidays”

  1. Holidays were always stressful for me, especially around parents and other relatives when I brought a girlfriend, fiance, or wife. Size was an issue, but not the only one. My (or her) parents and relatives were very nice people, but they had their blind spots. To keep the peace, there was an unwritten rule against bringing up certain topics; in our case the best topics to avoid were fat, religion, and in the 1970’s, Richard Nixon. (Today it might be climate change and Obamacare!) You have to not only pick your battles, but also when and where to have them; weddings, funerals, and holiday events are all bad times for battles.

  2. I wanted to thank Deb Burgard for raising the extremely important contextual issues related to privilege.

    “Perhaps it is more useful to ask, why do people with economic privilege project our fears and guilt about how much we are consuming onto the bodies of higher-weight people? Ironically, these are people who are much more likely to consume less of everything, but portrayed as ungovernable around food, sexuality, and the civic responsibility not to burden others with their pesky illnesses.”

    EXTREMELY well said!

  3. Ever since the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia, humanity has always understood that feasts and holidays are often periods of excess. And engaging in this kind of excess, for those who really feel like it and are able to do it without guilt, is much more important to one’s health – in this case, one’s mental health in the first place – than rigourously mantaining the same body weight. Holidays are supposed to be periods of celebration, gathering and ABSOLUTE ACCEPTANCE when most of the social rules guiding our behavior have no place whatsoever. That’s why popular feasts and holidays even in very traditional societies like Ancient Rome (think about the Saturnalia) were regarded as occasions where the poor could enjoy himself as much as the rich and the social rules (and prejudices) could be temporarily put on hold or even inverted.

    Feasts are not – or should not – be a period of reflection. In my humble view, rational human beings have the duty to reflect on their own and other people’s predicament all the rest of the year, so it’s truly unnecessary to turn holidays into moments of (guilt) reflection.

    However, in modern industrial societies, at least ever since the rich and upper middle-class started trying to distinguished themselves from the lower classes by having thin bodies and constructing a secular puritan ideology of discipline, holidays became a source of deep anxiety. This anxiety, in turn, is embedded in our diet culture – which must be one of the most pernicious and destructive forms of symbolic power in the history of humanity after racism – and projected on a broader scale. Suddently, we all become hostage of the upper classes’ anxieties, and obsessively keeping track of body weight becomes more important than one’s mental health and sense of gathering, participation and enjoyment.

    Not to mention that for people with eating disorders, giving this kind of advice is like handing out a loaded gun.

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