Holidays. Oh, Holidays. As a teenager, and for the first part of my 20’s, I dreaded the holidays because it meant heaps upon heaps of food that I had determined was unsuitable for any thin, self-disciplined girl. In the grips of an eating disorder, the idea of being surrounded by “trigger” foods was anxiety provoking to say the least. One Thanksgiving, in high school, I binged on Costco muffins (um, cake?) and then hid in the bathroom as my extended family began to arrive. My mom coaxed me out but it was a day full of shame, humiliation, anxiety and a very upset stomach.
Fast forward 12 years and while I have overcome the debilitating hold of anorexia and bulimia, the holidays still remain a stressful time centered around food, excess, and relationships. My battle with disordered eating, is much like the battle of any addict. Like someone who has battled alcoholism or drug addiction, there will always be times when it takes a great deal of willpower, support, meditation, and strategies to overcome the thoughts that once plagued my every moment. They creep into my mind, searching for their old room, telling me I’m not enough and I’m only beautiful if I attain a certain body type and practice extreme self discipline around food and exercise.
I’ve traveled galaxies from the tormented, depressed, medicated girl to a confident, healthy and strong woman. Still, those demons like to show their faces in times of stress and food can quickly become the thing that fuels negative self talk and adds to more stress during the holidays.
People with a history of eating disorders are not the only ones who find the holidays to be stressful. Really, for all their wonderful qualities, the holidays are sort of a perfect storm in America. For one, their are the social expectations. Lets’ not even dig into gift buying and the stress that spending might but on families. I’m talking about the parties, the family gatherings, the perceived obligations. Parties and families can bring a sense of warmth and belonging, but they can also pose stress. Maybe your spouse would rather not go to your a family gathering with you (stressful) or you feel the need to split the holidays 8 ways as to include every limb of your family tree. Maybe you know that Uncle Ted is going be loud and bigoted at Thanksgiving Dinner. Maybe you have a lot of loss in your life and the holidays remind you of that. Maybe the extra holiday parties leave you with less time for self care (oops, it seems I haven’t exercised in 2 months?). And even if you do not have any emotions/shame around food (ahem– you’re probably lying), all that out-of-the-ordinary food and extra booze are doing more than adding inches to your waist (bleh–another reason to be stressed), they are also putting an extra-ordinary amount of stress of your already tired and neglected body. All of these stresses compound, weaken your immune system and leave you even more STRESSED because now you have a crap-ton to do for the holidays and you’re sick.
Being a vegan has helped a lot. Not consuming the meaty and creamy cheesy food options at parties usually means I don’t feel like crawling in a hole the next day. Unless I’m at a vegan friendly party, it also means that the desserts are off limits to me–again, saving my body the added stress of processing the gunk. With that said, I still get quite stressed around the holidays. I spend A LOT of time cooking and stressing over family. I suppose I don’t want to feel left out and I want my little vegan family to feel included so instead of making one dish to bring to Thanksgiving dinner, I make an entire vegan spread and you better believe I sample everything as I go. By dinner time, I’m uncomfortably full but still want to eat dinner with everyone else and I’ve probably already had a glass or two of wine.
Without fail, since moving back from overseas (while I missed my family on holidays, those days were a lot less stressful when we lived abroad), I have come down with a bad cold on Christmas night or the following day. Its just too much for my immune system. January 1 rolls around and I’m all about the juice and smoothie regime and trying to repair my stressed out cells.
Does this sound familiar? Holidays can be really hard but they do not have to be! I’m working to re-invent the holidays for our little family. I’m trying to let go of traditions that do not serve us and the shame I feel when I do not live up to the expectations I’ve set for myself. As we approach the holiday season (retail stores started the push a month ago), I’m spending time thinking about how I can create memories with my family but reduce stress, overconsumption (food, alcohol, and gifts). What parties can we politely decline? What foods will I feed myself and my family? How can I maintain the practices that keep me sane (running, yoga, healthy eating, sleeping)?
Here are some practices that have worked for me.
- Hydrate like a CRAZY: I’ve been known to hit the coffee hard during the holidays. Coffee all day and a glass or two of wine in the evening. Suddenly, I’ve gone all day without drinking water and I feel like yuck. I’m dehydrated and my adrenals are a muck. I make it my mission to start every day with a big glass or room temperature water. Lemon and cayenne pepper score me extra points. I set water goals for myself between meals (I’ll drink this entire mason jar of water before lunch). I also grab myself a glass of water before having an alcoholic beverage at a party. Since we often confuse thirst for hunger, staying hydrated will also help to avoid over eating.
- Stick to your Food Values: I often hear, “I just couldn’t do it, you’re so disciplined.” Here’s the thing, its less discipline and more living within my values. I can easily say no thank you to food I know contains animal products. I know eating it will not only leave me feeling physically ill but when we live out of alignment with our values, its an emotional and spiritual yuck fest. Now, put a slice of vegan cake in front of me and I’m in trouble…
- Connect with loved ones in healthier ways. Skip the lunch or drinks date and go for a walk. Yeah, I know its raining, but you’re not made of sugar! I’ve had some profound moments with my girl friends on runs and walks. Partner up with your friends to provide accountability.
- Make eating a meditation: THIS IS HARD FOR ME! I am known to scarf my food–who has time for chewing, right? Well, it turns out, chewing is REALLY important. It helps us digest our food properly and maintain proper gut health. And gut health is wicked important to keep us functioning properly–after all, our gut is the home of our immune system. Two things I’m working on: Putting my fork/spoon down between every bite and chewing my food at least 15 times. Only 15, this is less than the recommended chew buts for a scarfer, this is progress. I don’t want to overwhelm myself with 3,000 chews per bite. Baby steps.
- Get that Shit out of your house. You know what shit I’m talking about. I’m taking about the leftover Halloween crap. I’m talking about the holiday treats, the party food, the soda, the egg nog…whatever it is that calls your name and then leaves you feeling horrid. This is not serving you. Get. It. Out. Send that shit to work with your husband or just throw it away. I used to feel guilty throwing junk food out but I don’t anymore. In my mind, its not food but a mixture of dangerous compounds that will make my family sick. High Fructose Corn Syrup, food coloring, refined sugar does not need to hang out in my house or body. Don’t feel bad dumping it, you’re doing it as an act of love for yourself and your family. I like to say out loud “F*&% you (fill in the blank with whatever the perpetrator is)” as I launch it into the garbage can. It feels good. You should try it.
- Move your body every day. Just do it. Join some type of running/yoga/walking/piyo/booty shaking challenge for the holidays. Choose a challenge you know you can stick with. Challenge your friends to a fitbit face off. Whatever it takes to get you to move every day. Pssssp, I’m launching a group next week!
- Get Self-Care Crazy. Book a massage…or heck, once a week if your insurance allows this, take a bubble bath, meditate, hang out in a steam room. Whatever it is that leaves you feeling renewed, do it. I actually have a massage booked once a week for the rest of the year. Yep, I’m pretty serious about this self-care thing.
- Crowd the Shit Out. I know, two strategies involve getting rid of shit. Never go onto the battle field hungry. Eat nourishing meals that leave you feeling fresh and satisfied. Honestly, I would much rather overeat roasted veggies, beans, and kale than trigger an all out binge on _________. I’m not saying you should not enjoy treats. I am saying you should not use the holidays as an excuse to eat in a way that leaves you feeling like crap–physically and emotionally. When we add high nutrient plant foods to our diet, we simply don’t feel the need to overeat heavy animal foods and sugary stuff. Sure, I love me some dark chocolate or vegan goodies, but if I fill myself with green smoothies, veggies, raw nuts/seeds, legumes, I just don’t have the space for the other stuff nor is the struggle as intense.
- Stop with the Negative Self Talk, Self-shaming, Comparing. You guys, these things are NOT serving us. Its like a freakin’ plague. I remember clearly the day I took the dive into disordered eating (it had been building up over a life time). It was a direct response to hearing another girl, who I perceived as skinnier and prettier than me, talked negatively about her body and how she was dieting. We can acknowledge a non-healthy weight (if one is indeed not within a healthy weight range), but beating ourselves up and shaming ourselves does nothing to help us be healthy. As a matter of fact, when I feel bad about my body and criticize myself, I usually find myself searching for chocolate in the pantry or eating spoonfuls of nut butter out of the fridge. Shame does not move us to change and be healthy, it drives us to numb. When you have negative thoughts about your body, close your eyes, imagine how you would respond if your child or best friend was having these thoughts. What would you say to them? Say that to yourself.
I know that’s a lot and that only scrapes the surface. I am so so grateful I am not that 17 year old girl hiding in the bathroom with a body painfully full of Costco muffins. My worst days are no where near my worst days a decade ago. I plan to take some time over the next week to really plan out how I will care for myself this holiday season. I encourage you to do the same. I will also be launching a free holiday support group for those who would like a place to share struggles, ideas, healthy recipes, or just seek accountability. More details soon!