It’s that time of year again. Streets are lined with lights, kids are anticipating the end of classes, parents are checking off wish lists. The holiday season is fully upon us.
For many, this time of year is filled with joy and love. Families reconnect and gather around the table. It often feels as if the world stands still for one day, granting us a moment of rest and celebration. For those who have experience with disordered eating, however, the holidays can come as a bittersweet treat.
From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, coming together and celebrating over a meal becomes a sacred practice. Many of my own favorite holiday memories are centered around food. When you live with an eating disorder or experience disordered eating, though, food can take control and cast a dark cloud over the rest of the festivities. Diet culture doesn’t help.
Since Thanksgiving, I’ve seen a lot of people on social media talk about how diet culture and disordered eating has changed our relationship with food. We have this seemingly universal idea that food is the enemy, and different types of essential food groups have become demonized. Carbs and fats, both of which are necessary for our bodies to continue functioning properly, have been forsaken to make room for what we view as the holy grail of food groups: protein. High protein, low carb, low fat diets have, for some reason, taken the nation by storm with calories as king. We’ve somehow come to the understanding that in order to be healthy, you have to restrict what you eat to the point that you have to choose which essential nutrients your body gets. We believe in insufficient calorie budgets that inhibit us so much that we don’t have room to eat what will fuel us.
The slope from this sort of dieting to an eating disorder is a short and slippery one.
My freshman year of high school, nearly a decade ago, we learned about nutrition in health class. We learned that calories translate to pounds, either gained or lost, and we learned that in order to maintain weight, you need to consistently consume the same average amount of calories per day. Inversely, we learned that people gain or lose weight by either increasing or decreasing their caloric intake and/or their level of exercise.
That’s when I started counting calories. At first, it wasn’t about losing weight. It was legitimately about trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. As I started becoming more aware of the bodies around me and in the national eye, though, I noticed I didn’t look like them. I had extra fat on my thighs, around my waist, on my arms. I noticed that the boys at school liked the girls who were tiny and athletic.
So I started decreasing my daily caloric intake and increasing my exercise. Before long, I was journaling everything I ate, from black coffee to a stick of gum—5 calories each. I would punish myself for going “over-budget” by exercising the calories off until I was below net zero. I skipped meals and lied to my parents about eating. I didn’t know it then, but I was training myself to fear food, to let it control me even though I thought I was the one in control.
By the time the holidays came around, I was terrified of eating, even though I could fairly easily pretend to eat at that point. I had let food take over. My favorite time of year had been hijacked by my own obsession.
While I’m in recovery now and can easily eat a full meal, I still feel twinges of guilt when I indulge in certain foods or big holiday feasts. I still take more vegetables than potatoes, and I still have a hard time finishing dessert. It’s still hard to hear people talk about how this is their “cheat day” or how they’re going to regret eating so much the next morning.
This holiday season, I’m making a vow to myself and anyone I’m around who might be struggling with disordered eating. I will not feel bad for enjoying my food. I will not punish myself for eating. I will not talk about how unhealthy something is. Our bodies need food to survive, and I refuse to let myself suffer for providing myself sustenance.
We have had more than enough stress and fear this year. Let’s not add to it by making ourselves guilty over eating and enjoying the holidays.
Stay healthy. Enjoy your holiday meals.