The holidays are here. Again. Complicated relationships seem to have a way of resurfacing at this time of year. For many of us, one of the most complicated relationships to navigate is one we cannot easily walk away from. There are no calls to stop returning, no texts to ignore, no Facebook messages that, huh, that’s weird, never came through. No, this relationship is not with our husbands or wives, or our family or friends. It is with food.
Unfortunately, there is no easy, step-by-step plan or fad diet that can help us repair this messy dynamic. Instead, fixing this relationship starts with awareness. The loose guideline is to start by observing yourself, learning to identify the different types of hunger, and increasing your self-compassion so that you are able to navigate the ebbs and flows of your journey.
There’s both good news and bad news when you consider how to tackle your relationship with food.
The good news is that food is neutral. Unlike Uncle Tom and Aunt Martha (always holding court at the Thanksgiving table) food is neither good or bad. It won’t comment on your financial success (or lack thereof), or ask you when you’re planning to have children. It’s not mean—it just is.
Food doesn’t want to fight with you—in fact, when it comes to negotiating your dance together, food is happy to take your lead. Is food scary to you? No problem, food will take that on. Is food comforting or joyous? Food has your back here too.
Food wants you to find your peace with it because the truth is, the two of you will never be able to part ways. Unlike Uncle Tom and Aunt Martha, food cannot be avoided, ignored, or dismissed, at least not for too long (a few hours at most). Your relationship with food is one you’ll have, day in and day out, for the rest of your lives together, so let’s begin to explore how to make it work.
Figuring out how to have a healthy relationship with food must come from you—food cannot do this for you. Food is a willing participant, in that it is available to be consumed, but that’s about it. Learning to thrive in a healthy relationship with food is important.
Too much, too little, the “wrong” food—these are all perceptions that very likely began to develop when you were quite young. When you first started to feed yourself, you knew instinctively what to eat, when, and how much to satisfy your growing body. As you aged, other factors became increasingly important, including your well-meaning parents, your peers, and the current societal trends. At some point, it is likely that food became intertwined with your thoughts and emotions and began to serve alternate purposes such as numbing, soothing, or distraction.
According to Jan Chozen Bays in Mindful Eating, there are seven different types of hunger to increase awareness of to improve your relationship with food. Throughout the holiday season, at least six of them come up (cellular hunger will be left out of this discussion as it is a bit too challenging to navigate at a holiday gathering—please see Bays’s book for a full discussion of all seven types and tips to incorporate mindful eating throughout the year). Let’s explore the different types of hunger and how to negotiate them.
The first type of hunger is eye hunger. Eye hunger is more difficult to navigate over the holidays than at other times of year. The carefully arranged crackers and cheese, the beautiful rows of deviled eggs, the neatly stacked towers of holiday cookies—food is beautifully arranged and presented in ways that simply don’t show up on a regular Thursday evening.
Even though your stomach is telling you you’ve had enough, the fantastic display is inviting you to indulge. Just one more bite of that cheese. Just one more deviled egg (so good!). Just one more cookie—or why not make it two or three or four.
To manage this hunger, pay attention to what your eyes notice—whether it’s colors, arrangements, or textures—and stop to consider what you really need in the moment. If you check in with yourself and are able to feel your fullness, consider averting your eyes and enjoying something else that is beautiful. Feed your eyes on the flower arrangement or the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree, for these are images you can indulge in while you take a moment to notice whether you are actually hungry.
Nose hunger is also particularly difficult at this time of year. Mom’s stuffing, grandma’s pumpkin pies, sizzling meats, and buttery morsels—the smells assault you every time you enter a room.
Smell is largely responsible for what you actually taste when you eat.
Taste, or mouth hunger, is rooted in a desire for pleasing sensations in the mouth. The human mouth is easily bored, so try exploring texture to keep things interesting.
Grab a crisp green salad alongside your tamale. Notice these textures and remember to chew well. Chewing can be helpful in satisfying mouth hunger.
Stomach hunger gets a little trickier. Stomach hunger can be challenging to identify because it is not always related to having an empty stomach; instead, it may be a feeling, or a thought. The right amounts and types of food satisfy this hunger.
During the holidays, navigating stomach hunger can be especially difficult. Your routines are disrupted, you eat when it’s time for everyone to sit down and eat together, and you eat your family’s traditional holiday foods.
At the start of the meal, check in with yourself and try to assess your stomach hunger. If you are able, and this likely depends on the social dynamics of the event, stop eating about halfway through your plate and check in again. If you are distracted (I imagine you might be) and your stomach gets a little too full, remember that this is only one meal. Be gentle on yourself and pay attention to your stomach hunger at future meals; you might find you’re often not as hungry as you think you are.
Mind hunger can also show up over the holidays. If you have thoughts like, “I should eat more protein,” “Carbs are bad,” or “I deserve a cookie,” you are suffering from mind hunger.
Mind hunger is often at the heart of one’s troubled relationship with food, and it is challenging to satisfy because people’s minds are always changing. One day, you are certain you need to begin a diet, and the next you are quite sure you “deserve” a treat.
The holidays are a unique time to notice all the “shoulds” you tell yourself about food. Remember, food is neither good or bad—it just is. What do you tell yourself about the foods you choose to consume at this time of year? Are those foods disproportionately “bad”? What does that even mean?
The final type of hunger, heart hunger, will show up for many people at some point during, or in between, the many holiday events. Heart hunger, like most types of hunger, is not related to satiety. Instead, it is connected to feelings such as loneliness or sadness.
Does your sister still make your grandmother’s apple pie every Thanksgiving? What feelings come up when you consume it? Does it transport you to your grandma’s warm kitchen where you baked cookies together every Sunday? Did your grandma make you feel like the most important person in the world? Heart hunger is rooted in a desire to connect with others, even those long gone.
The holidays offer a unique time in that they foster connections to important people in your life and give you access to many of the foods that you likely find comforting. You may find that, as you share time and stories with your friends and loved ones, your desire to be comforted through food decreases.
Beyond increasing your mindfulness with food, here are a few additional tips to help you increase food-related positivity and self-compassion throughout the holidays:
· Refrain from talking about other people’s body size and what they are eating (or not eating) at gatherings.
· Don’t engage in the self-deprecating talk about your own body size and the diet you intend to pursue in the new year.
· Do imagine that you are talking to your best friend, instead of yourself, when reflecting on your holiday food consumption. Just this simple exercise can shift an internal message from “I can’t believe I ate that! Tomorrow I need to drink carrot juice all day to compensate (read: punish myself)” to “I am so glad I got a chance to enjoy my mom’s latkes. Maybe one too many, but it’s only one meal, and I loved every minute of it!”
Enjoy your food this holiday season and consider taking these tips and tricks into the new year as you begin to reconceptualize your relationship with food. Food is not the enemy, so try making it your friend!
Bays, J. C. (2009). Mindful eating: A guide to rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Shambhala.
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Melissa Klass, LMFT, is a psychotherapist practicing virtually throughout the state of California. She provides depth therapy to individuals looking to better understand themselves and their patterns. Melissa works primarily with women who want to explore their relationship to themselves, others, and society. She is certified in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and she has extensively studied grief. Please contact Melissa on her profile or schedule time to chat with her here: https://calendly.com/melissaklass/freeconsultcall