How to Overcome Food Guilt This Holiday Season

The holiday season is quickly approaching. For many, the holidays are a time to spend with loved ones, relax, and eat good food. But for some, the holidays can also be a time to worry about that second slice of pumpkin pie or unlimited access to Christmas cookies.

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • “I love this time of year, but I feel out of control around all these desserts.”
  • “Good thing I plan to start dieting on January 2.”
  • “I plan to spend 2 hours on the treadmill today so that I can really enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.”

Guilt after eating is a serious concern for many people and can make it difficult to enjoy the holiday season. For those who experience food guilt, this time of year may leave you feeling out of control around holiday treats and unable to eat without becoming overly full or stuffed.

Letting go of the holiday food guilt is one of the healthiest moves you can make all season. Research has shown that rigid forms of dieting are associated with depression, anxiety, and increased preoccupation with weight and size.

Plus, it frees your mind to stop worrying about counting calories and lets you get back to enjoying the holidays.

Of course, this may be easier said than done. For many, food guilt is so ingrained in our subconscious that it almost feels natural. For example, I ate those cookies, so now it is time to enter the shame spiral, right?

Not necessarily! Below is a list of tips from a registered dietitian-nutritionist to help you overcome food guilt this holiday season.

Decorative picture of a holiday meal

What is Food Guilt?

In general, guilt is a feeling of shame or regret that people can experience after doing something wrong. Examples of guilt-inducing behavior include lying, stealing, cheating, or causing harm to others.

We are taught to feel guilt at a young age. As children, we learn that certain behaviors are bad or wrong and warrant a consequence.

But if the definition of guilt is feeling shame about something wrong, how did we end up with so much food guilt? After all, everyone has to eat to survive, so why do we feel shame or guilt after eating?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is diet culture. Diet culture tells us that certain foods are good or bad and leaves us feeling ashamed when we inevitably eat “bad” foods.

And the holiday season is rife with this kind of diet mentality. On the one hand, we are taught that the holidays are a time to enjoy good food. However, we also know that we will pay for it come the new year. After all, diet culture relies on holiday food guilt to sell us New Year’s resolution programs.

For many of us, the food guilt starts long before the new year and makes it difficult to enjoy this season without the crushing shame of guilt after eating.

How Food Guilt Can Affect Health

Food guilt is more than a minor inconvenience; it can also impact your health all year long. Some consequences of food guilt and other restrictive diets include:

Increased preoccupation with food

Have you ever noticed that you are more likely to crave a particular food when you give it up as part of a diet? The preoccupation with food that occurs while on a diet is known as the diet or deprivation mentality.

It can be physically and mentally draining and can leave you prone to binge eating when you inevitably eat a “bad” or “forbidden” food.

Decreased sense of willpower

Frequently, food guilt may lead you to blame yourself when a diet fails. In reality, it is difficult to stick with highly restrictive diets for long term success. This feeling of guilt may lead you to believe that you lack willpower, ultimately lowering your self-esteem.  

Increased risk of depression and anxiety

Research suggests that individuals who engage in rigid, restrictive diet methods are more likely to report symptoms of depression, anxiety, and excessive concern with body size and shape compared to those with flexible diets (1, 2).

Increased risk of disordered eating

Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, result from complex interactions between genetic and environmental factors. However, there is growing evidence that chronic dieting is a common stepping-stone into eating disorders (3).

Increased risk of weight gain

Contrary to popular belief, food guilt does not help you lose weight. If feeling guilty about a specific food actually helped you eat less of that food, dieting would be significantly more successful. As it is, most diets do not provide long-term success. Additionally, research suggests that dieting may be a predictor of weight gain.

For example, one review study found that people on diets regained 30 to 65% of the weight they had initially lost within a year (4).

In a different review article, 11 out of 19 studies determined that dieting was associated with higher body fat percentages (5). Additionally, 4 out of 8 articles in this review found that dieting was linked to an increased likelihood of future weight gain (5).

Tips for Overcoming Food Guilt This Holiday Season

Tip 1: Permit Yourself to Eat

This may sound counterintuitive, but one of the first steps you can take to ending food guilt is to eat the foods that make you feel guilty. Permit yourself to eat all foods this holiday season, even those you might typically shy away from due to food guilt.

As humans, we don’t handle restrictions well. Have you ever noticed that as soon as you give up or limit a particular food as part of a diet, you are prone to obsessing about that food?

Avoiding your favorite holiday foods causes cravings for these foods to increase, not decrease. Then, you ultimately feel guilt after eating those foods that are deemed “bad” or unhealthy.

Instead, remember that no single meal or snack will make you unhealthy. Try giving yourself permission to eat whatever foods you want this holiday season and see what happens. It may take some practice, but eventually, you’ll notice that these foods don’t have the same power over you as they used to.

Additionally, this isn’t a holiday-only rule. By allowing yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods as part of a varied diet, you can break the cycle of dieting, deprivation, overeating, and food guilt.

Tip 2: Gain Some Perspective

Food guilt can sap your energy and leave you with an altered perspective on the situation. Pretty soon, the food guilt might even convince you that you have undone any healthy habits you engage in during the rest of the year.

When you find that food guilt is leading to a mental spiral, try asking yourself this question:

Is overeating at this holiday dinner or missing a few workouts over vacation something I will remember a few months from now?

The answer to this question is probably no. Instead, you will likely remember how much fun you had over the holidays or those delicious dishes that you only get once a year.

Tip 3: Stick with Your Normal Eating Schedule

The holidays are a period that is different than the rest of the year. Generally speaking, most people are off from work, traveling, or hosting loved ones. Changes in your routine can also mean erratic eating schedules that can throw off your natural hunger cues.

When you go too long without eating, you may find yourself overindulging in foods due to hunger, ultimately resulting in food guilt. Of course, there is nothing wrong with eating the foods that you enjoy.

However, overeating can leave you feeling stuffed and sluggish. Plus, you may be more likely to skip meals as a form of compensation after you overeat. This can lead to a cycle of feeling ravenous, overeating, and skipping meals, only to feel ravenous again.

Eating consistent meals with plenty of variety will help satisfy your hunger. By sticking to a regular eating schedule, you are less likely to become overly hungry, which may stop you from overeating and feeling guilt after eating.

List of tips for overcoming food guilt over the holidays

Tip 4: Remove Harmful Language From Your Vocabulary

When it comes to food and nutrition, you are often your own worst enemy.

In the practice of Intuitive Eating, there is a term for this- the food police. The food police are your inner critic who harshly judges your food choices and decides if you are a “bad” person based on how you eat. Additionally, the food police enforce food rules by using food guilt.

You can combat the food police this holiday season by bringing awareness to your thoughts around food. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are your thoughts about food judgmental?
  • Are they helping you reach your health goals, or are they holding you back?
  • Are they motivating you or sucking your energy?

Once you have identified the food police, the next step is to tell them no. Instead, replace these thoughts with a voice of compassion and self-care.

Tip 5: Set Healthy Boundaries With Family and Friends

Additionally, harmful language can also come from your family and friends, even if they mean well. Being around friends and family can lead to conversations about food and weight, especially in situations with unlimited food, like the holidays.

After all, we all grew up in the same diet culture, and talking about food has become a way to bond.

You have a few options for addressing friends and relatives who have moved the conversation toward food or body weight. One easy trick is to redirect the conversation toward something that you know the other person will enjoy.

For example, you may say something like, “Yes, there is a lot of delicious food here. But I haven’t talked to you in ages. How is [X, Y, or Z]?”

You can also be more direct if you feel comfortable being honest in this situation. For example, try saying, “I feel uncomfortable hearing about people’s diets or weight loss because I’m working to heal my relationship with food.” Telling the other person how something makes you feel allows you to be heard without placing your friend or family member on the defense.

Tip 6: Question the Old Way of Doing Things (Including the New Year’s Resolution)

Question the old way of doing things that makes you feel guilt about eating. For example, who says that you can’t have seconds of your favorite foods if you are still hungry?

Furthermore, who says that you need to go on a diet starting January 2?

Ultimately, these food rules are a large part of the reason why you end up feeling out of control and guilty during the holidays.

For many people, the holidays mean restriction is right around the corner, even if it’s in the back of the mind. Starting January 2, the party is over, and the New Year’s resolution begins.

So even though you may technically be surrounded by food, this upcoming fear of restriction triggers a deprivation mentality, and your body may react like it is in “starvation mode.” This then impacts how you behave around food and can leave feelings of shame when you can’t say no to holiday treats.

Relying on a diet come January is one reason you feel like you can’t pass on the holiday snacks.

Questioning the old way of doing things can help us see food differently, ultimately helping remove the deprivation mentality. When you aren’t worried about the diet that is just around the corner, you are free to enjoy your foods or say no to seconds when you are genuinely full.  

Tip 7: Practice Mindfulness

The holidays can be stressful, and there can be so much going on around you that you may forget to check-in with yourself to see what you want and need.

Try to take some time for yourself this holiday season to connect with your body cues- aka your feelings of hunger, fullness, and satiety. Overall, see how your body is feeling.

You can also try this mindfulness activity at meals. Before eating, take a few minutes to assess your hunger level – how hungry do you feel? What do you want to eat? What is your body craving? Permit yourself to eat whatever holiday food sounds good (as in tip #1 above), and pay attention to how your body feels as you’re eating.

Ask yourself, is this food as good as I imagined?

Check-in with yourself halfway through the meal, and then again at the end of the meal, to assess how you feel. Are you full? Still hungry? Was this meal as satisfying as you thought it would be?

Bringing mindfulness to your eating can help you fully enjoy your holiday meals and snacks without the usual judgment that accompanies food guilt.  

Tip 8: Commit to Enjoying Your Food Free From Food Guilt

This tip goes along the same lines as tip 1 and 2 on permitting yourself to eat and gaining perspective. Ultimately, the holidays occur only once a year, and they often include seasonal treats that aren’t available year-round.

By committing to thoroughly enjoying this food, you tell yourself that there is no room for food guilt this holiday season.

References

  1. Stewart TM, Williamson DA, White MA. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite. 2002;38(1):39-44. doi:10.1006/appe.2001.0445
  2. Smith, C. F., Williamson, D. A., Bray, G. A., & Ryan, D. H. (1999). Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite32(3), 295–305. https://doi.org/10.1006/appe.1998.0204
  3. Heatherton, T. F., & Polivy, J. (1992). Chronic dieting and eating disorders: A spiral model. In J. H. Crowther, D. L. Tennenbaum, S. E. Hobfoll, & M. A. P. Stephens (Eds.), Series in applied psychology: Social issues and questions. The etiology of bulimia nervosa: The individual and familial context (p. 133–155). Hemisphere Publishing Corp.
  4. Mackie, Grace M et al. “Does weight cycling promote obesity and metabolic risk factors?.” Obesity research & clinical practice vol. 11,2 (2017): 131-139. doi:10.1016/j.orcp.2016.10.284
  5. Dulloo, A G et al. “How dieting makes the lean fatter: from a perspective of body composition autoregulation through adipostats and proteinstats awaiting discovery.” Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity vol. 16 Suppl 1 (2015): 25-35. doi:10.1111/obr.12253

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