Soon, you may be sitting down for a Christmas (or Hanukkah) meal with loved ones. Do you feel overwhelmed at the thought of all that food laid out on the table? Or do you feel excited?
Let’s say you’re a person who associates today’s thin and fit “body ideal” with success, and a fat body with failure. You assume that if you have enough self-control to eat and exercise “right”, you’ll achieve “vast rewards”.
You spend the year trying to lose weight, but repeatedly fail. You make one final attempt before the office Christmas party in the hope you’ll impress everyone with how good you look.
Many people know there’s a global problem with overweight and obesity, including in Australia. What is less well known is that unhealthy, “disordered” eating behaviours can be both a cause and an effect of body fat gain.
Low self-esteem and intense dieting are risk factors for eating disorders. Hardcore dieting can also paradoxically increase body weight. For example, weight-control behaviours were surveyed in American adolescents over a five-year period. Those who said they engaged in extreme practices (which were defined as activities such as fasting or taking diet pills) were more likely to report weight gain.
Conversely, unhealthy eating behaviours such as emotional eating may be more common in people with obesity. And when some young Australian women were evaluated, those who were classified as obese described higher levels of dietary restraint and body shape concern compared with other women in the sample.
Finally, any weight loss may be hindered by feelings of shame and inferiority.
Read more: Why we regain weight after drastic dieting
Six ways to improve your experience of Christmas dinner (and every dinner after that)
1. Give yourself permission to enjoy Christmas food. Say to yourself, “I can eat that whole pavlova if I want to (and if Uncle Bob lets me)”. You’ll likely find your desire to do so decreases once you truly remove any strict, black-and-white, “off-limits” rules you’ve imposed on your eating habits.
We could call this counter-intuitive phenomenon The Reverse Psychology of Food or The Backwards Law of Nutrition.
2. Don’t say to yourself, “I shouldn’t eat any of that pavlova”. The words “should” and “shouldn’t” remove your sense of autonomy. Lower levels of perceived choice may reduce the likelihood of long-term body weight balance.
3. Accept your body’s genetic potential and embrace health over looks. Some of us will never look like thin fashion models, no matter how hard we try. Others may be able to reach a fit ideal, but at what cost?
Adopt reasonable weight and shape goals for you. Re-focus on being healthy overall, rather than how you look in a bikini (although these can be linked, anyway).
The Health at Every Size approach involves body size acceptance, a reduction in dieting, and an increase in intuitive eating (and can actually help with weight loss).
Many of us could do with learning how to better listen to our bodies, including its signals of hunger and fullness - and of emotional distress. Numbing unpleasant emotions with food is a frequent means of escape, but is associated with eating more calorific cake, ice cream and chips (but without real enjoyment).
4. Adopt a “mostly:sometimes” mantra. That is, mostly you will eat healthily, and sometimes you won’t. It’s common to overeat from time to time, such as on Christmas day (although you might want to ask yourself if it’s worth the horrible, stuffed feeling afterwards). It’s OK to eat that delectable Christmas pudding, or other nutritionally questionable foods, now and again.
5. Be kinder to yourself. Self-compassion may help weight loss, nutrition behaviours, eating behaviours and body image. It may decrease the body shame that can be associated with higher body mass. Try out some exercises here.
6. Set yourself small goals to reduce the frequency of unwanted habits or introduce new habits. There’s an approach called Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions, which involves thinking positively about what it will feel like when you reach your goal, and implementing actual steps to get there.
In summary, if you feel stressed about what to eat at Christmas, have too much body fat or disordered eating (the two are related), are a rigid dieter or have low self-esteem; give yourself permission to savour that gingerbread Santa - but later on enjoy a plate of salad.
Accept your body as it is, at this very moment - and focus on improving its overall health, rather than the firmness of its abs. Balanced nutrition habits that can sustain a healthy body and mind include Christmas pudding for most of us.