It’s time to lay out your most festive tablecloths, break out those family recipe books and start crafting those wonderful holiday dishes you’ve been craving all year. Because let’s be honest with ourselves, what would the holidays be without the food?
Thanksgiving always brings heaps of turkey, a river of gravy and a happy medley of beautiful carbs ranging from mashed potatoes to stuffing to mac and cheese. If your family is anything like mine, you have about three different pies available come dessert time, maybe four if someone was feeling adventurous that year. After that comes an endless parade of Christmas cookies. There is no shortage of festive events featuring wonderful holiday foods.
Now enjoying these foods is supposed to be one of the happiest things about the holiday season, but their presence always brings with it a dark side: diet culture. Diet culture is defined by Self Magazine as “an entire belief system that associates food with morality and thinness with goodness” that is rooted in the “belief that every individual has full control and responsibility over their health.”
Diet culture rhetoric is everywhere in our lives. Maybe your roommate called a certain snack their “guilty pleasure”. Maybe someone said they were “being good” for choosing one food over another. Maybe you know someone who has tried keto, paleo, Whole 30 or a juice cleanse. Someone might have seemingly innocently commented “You look great, did you lose weight?” If you have ever heard these things, then congratulations, you’ve experienced diet culture.
And you are not alone; an estimated 45 million Americans diet every year. In the process, we spend 30 billion dollars on diet products per year. These ideas are so pervasive and normalized in our culture that most people fail to even identify when they are happening.
These ideas are incredibly damaging. The foundational ideology of diet culture promotes fatphobia and ableism. By asserting the idea that health and weight are easily controllable through behavior alone, diet culture empowers people to judge those who are overweight or suffer from chronic diseases. This completely glosses over the fact that behavior is just one element of the complex web of environmental, social and genetic factors that also heavily influence health. Diet culture increases weight bias, promotes body dysmorphia and puts people at an increased risk for developing eating disorders.
This is a particularly salient challenge among college-age students. The National Eating Disorder Association estimates that up to 20% of women and up to 10% of men in college suffer from an eating disorder. We’ve all heard the class fear of the “freshman 15” weight gain upon arriving at college for the first time. Additionally, young people are more engaged with social media, one of the most common vectors for diet culture messaging and disordered eating content.
Diet culture often intensifies for people around the holidays. It’s easy to put on a few pounds when there’s so much wonderful food in your life that deserves appreciation. But unfortunately, this is too often followed by the panicked era of New Year’s resolutions, when people attempt unhinged and unsustainable efforts to eliminate any holiday weight gains. Evidence shows that restrictive dieting fails to result in long-term weight loss 95% of the time and that engaging in a cycle of dieting and then regaining weight, also called “yo-yo dieting” leads to sleep disturbances, poorer heart health and diabetes.
Holiday foods are about more than calories and macros. Holiday foods connect us to national celebrations. They bind us to our own cultural histories. And they provide comfort and joy during the increasingly cold and dark fall and winter months. The emotional and cultural values of food are just as important as their nutritional values.
So, how do we combat diet culture around the holidays? The easiest way is to simply check your own rhetoric, both when we talk to ourselves and when we talk to others.
When you speak to others, don’t ever offer an unsolicited comment on another person’s weight, even if you think it’s complimentary. You have no idea what they have been doing to achieve that weight, and even with the best intentions, you might be providing positive reinforcement for disordered eating behaviors. Never comment on what foods other people eat or how much they eat. And if you see other people in your life making these kinds of comments, you have my permission to tell them to shut up. If someone tries to talk to you about their diet or weight loss journey and offers random unsolicited tips, you have every right to ignore them.
Just as importantly, keep tabs on your mental self-talk. It might be healthier for you to give up the scale during the holiday season. If you catch yourself feeling the need to over-exercise to “balance out” holiday calories, work on changing your perspective to exercising for fun or because you enjoy the way it makes you feel. If you catch yourself debating if you can “afford” to go back for seconds, just go for it! Practice food freedom, and allow all of your favorite holiday eats to fit into your diet in whatever way makes you happy. Validate yourself and all your food decisions.
You don’t need to do anything to “earn” your holiday calories. You don’t need to exercise more to compensate for holiday calories. You don’t need to buy any products or do any kind of cleanse to reduce your holiday bloat. You don’t need to think twice about going back for seconds. You deserve to enjoy every wonderful food during the holiday season, without fear of judgment from others or judgment from yourself.
If you begin to feel that too much of your mental energy goes towards thinking about food and exercise, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional for help. The National Eating Disorder Association offers call and text assistance at (800)-931-2237, and provides additional resources for seeking help on their website. Stay safe this holiday season. Cultivate a positive relationship with food. And maybe instead of fighting about politics around your Thanksgiving table, give calling out your family’s diet culture rhetoric a try.