A guest post by Sydney Barrera, RD, LDN, and SunCloud Health’s Director of Nutritional Services
Many of our American holidays this time of the year are centered around food, holiday treats, and large shared meals with friends and family. For many who struggle with disordered eating, celebrations during the holidays can be extra challenging due to so much dialogue around food, recipes, and diets.
By debunking common myths about holiday dishes and providing other resources, we hope to comfort those recovering and guide them to find a balance between enjoying food and having “good health” this holiday season.
Debunking Myths and Embracing Holiday Ingredients
There are many misconceptions or negative perceptions about food and eating caused by toxic diet culture, the media, and even our own friends and family members. Let’s address a few of the main myths we see around this time of the year in hopes that, after explaining them, the knowledge gained allows everyone to enjoy the food they encounter this season more freely.
For some, seeking whole health during the holidays can mean seeking to enjoy the celebrations with food, without too much restriction. While there is truth to the statement that “everything is good in moderation” this also means it is important to have a normal serving. Don’t cheat yourself by restricting the food you choose for your plate or by restricting your eating habits overall. Remember, your body can process a normal serving of a special meal, and maybe a little extra pie if you’re feeling up for it.
Mashed Potato Myths
It’s common for many families to use a lot of heavy cream and butter in mashed potatoes. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to the recipe and enjoying every amount of every ingredient. Many times, individuals may feel pressured to use butter or sugar substitutes when it comes to preparing staple dishes and desserts like mashed potatoes and pies. In some cases there are serious dietary needs, for example, someone who is diabetic or has celiac disease. It may be doctor recommended to be cautious and cut back where you can. If this is the case, listen to your care providers. However, for the case of individuals changing recipes and using substitutes solely out of fear of the “unhealthy” ingredients, it’s important to recognize that this habit is an unhealthy practice.
Myths about Tryptophan
Many celebrate the holidays with a beautifully roasted turkey as the centerpiece of the spread. Turkey is a great source of protein, but those who struggle with food preoccupations are often worried about tryptophan contents. People create negative mental associations with this property and feel that if they eat turkey, they will feel instantly sleepy, lazy, and gluttonous. These associations and negative reactions to this food lead to many choosing to skip the turkey.
It is true that turkey has tryptophan, but let’s detangle what this means. Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin and Vitamin B3 (Niacin). This means that your brain can receive more serotonin with an increased intake of tryptophan. However, chicken and some other high-protein foods contain higher levels of tryptophan per ounce than turkey does! Lesson being: don’t let these food conversations sway you when creating your holiday plate.
Movement myths make individuals feel pressured to “work for your calories” or “exercise off” what they eat for big celebratory meals. This myth may manifest through local “turkey trot” runs or by conversations and comments made by friends and family members. For someone who struggles with eating habits and overexercise disorders, this can be extra difficult. Please know you do not have to exercise in order to “earn” the right to enjoy a nutrient-rich meal with friends and family. Increasing exercise behaviors and/or practicing restrictive eating habits during the holidays can lead to worse issues in the new year and beyond.
How to Navigate Food-Focused Celebrations
Our American culture enforces big, shared meals to be the main way to celebrate the season with friends and family. For someone who has a preoccupation with food or is in eating disorder recovery, navigating shared meals can be overwhelming. While those in recovery are silently struggling, friends and family around the dinner table are fully enjoying themselves. There is no one easy way to approach this, especially as everyone’s recovery journey is different; however, there are a few ways those in recovery can plan to navigate meal settings.
Have a Plan
If you are in recovery for an eating disorder, work closely with your recovery team and community to create a plan for stressful holidays or mealtimes. Having a plan around food can help someone to feel less anxious and more prepared. It takes away the pressure of having to challenge their eating disorder in the moment in front of family and friends.
Everyone is unique, so the goals around what meals will be like for everyone will be different, and that is a good thing. We encourage those recovering to have grace with themselves and challenge rigid thoughts.
Set goals to continue to eat three meals a day before, during, and after the holidays. Your body is smart, it can adapt to eating a little bit more or less for meals. If you notice yourself moving into a binge-restrict cycle, reach out to your support systems.
Mix in Some Veggies
Overall, with many celebratory meals comes a lot of starchy food groups. Try to remember to eat food groups other than starches in addition to the yummy casseroles and dinner rolls. Aim to create a plate with color. Adding some green veggies and colorful fruit can ensure helpful nutrients are absorbed.
Limit Negative Talk
It may be helpful to yourself and others to ask that no one participates in discussions of weight or eating habits during the gathering. This allows all parties to focus on enjoying the meal. Limit contact with negative talk and comments about guilt or eating too much/too little. If guests at the meal cannot refrain from these comments, do not hesitate to put your progress in your recovery first and leave the meal early.
Finding a Balance
Exercise has been proven beneficial for mood and overall health, but exercise can also become unhealthy when practiced without balance. Everyone and their bodies and needs are different, which is why finding the balance is so difficult. Try not to compare your health practices with others or with what you see online.
Intuitive movement and eating are helpful practices for those in recovery, taking individuals on their own journeys of getting to know themselves and their bodies. This journey takes practice around challenging engrained food and body thoughts, diet culture, and learning how your emotions play a role in it all. Intentionally checking in with yourself before movement and eating times can be beneficial, such as asking, “How am I feeling in this moment? What did I choose to eat today? Why did I make this choice? Am I hungry/not hungry? How do I feel after eating this food?” Curiosity can help us to better connect with ourselves and our bodies.
For those in recovery, extra support is what allows healing. Ask a family member or friend who knows about your struggles to be an exercise partner to you, to better help you find balance in exercise. By engaging in movement with others, it is easier to find value in moving our bodies outside of the motivations of changing our bodies or burning off food.
SunCloud Health Is Here to Help
While the holidays are hard for many, we can all do our part to support ourselves and others through the stresses of the season. By being mindful of the verbiage used around eating and food and limiting the language used during meals about these topics, we create a more welcoming environment for all, no matter their relationship with food.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, SunCloud Health has experts that are ready to help. Our Nutritional Services team is committed to helping individuals who are struggling with their relationship with food, creating custom treatment programs that address the root cause of the unique struggles each client reports. Everyone receives individualized care, nutrition plans, and counseling based on their needs.
For more information, or to schedule a consultation, visit: https://suncloudhealth.com/treatment/eating-disorders
About Sydney Barrera
Sydney Barrera is a Registered Dietitian who is passionate about combining evidence-based nutrition research with a personalized approach. She is devoted to helping individuals reach their ultimate recovery by implementing specific goals and meal plans, and achieves this through dedicated treatment that allows for a better understanding of the intimate relationship between food and one’s body. With this understanding, she guides clients on their journeys toward health.
Sydney has experience treating eating disorders and disordered eating patterns in residential, PHP, and outpatient levels of care.