Why the holidays can affect our relationship with food – and how to handle that

For many of us, the Christmas period can be a deeply triggering time. Here's how to practice some self-care.

by James Greig
20 December 2019, 11:00am

Photo via Pexels 

Content note: This article contains descriptions of food anxiety and disordered eating which -- while presented in the interest of promoting self-care -- some readers may find triggering. All of the names in this piece have been changed.

The older I get the more it seems like the ability to enjoy Christmas is a kind of privilege. It depends on many things, some permanent and some transient, like whether you’re recently bereaved or heart-broken, if you get on well with your family or have a home to go back to at all and, for a great deal of people, the relationship you have with food. Christmas can be a particularly bad time for people who experience disordered eating and it’s not uncommon for people in recovery to relapse over the holiday season, considered by many to be a huge source of anxiety.

“I get a lot stricter with my eating habits around Christmas,” says Lily, 24. “When I was younger, I was famous in my family for being a bottomless pit; I'd have seconds and thirds at Xmas dinner and clean the house out of chocolate before Boxing Day hit. Obviously that's not exactly healthy but it was kind of expected. Now I'm the complete opposite -- I turn down more than one glass of booze and can only manage one big plate at the Christmas lunch. I leave most of my chocolate untouched as well to avoid 'temptation', which is a terrible way of thinking about delicious food.”

While some people might succeed in restricting their eating, being overly strict with yourself can sap the enjoyment out of the holiday. After all, if ever there’s a time for indulging yourself and not feeling guilty about it, it should be Christmas. Like Lily, although I hate the queasy sensation that comes with overindulging, when there’s an abundance of food in front of me, I find it difficult to control myself. My efforts to do so always turn into a grand, existential battle of wills, one which I always lose and floods me with self-loathing -- this kind of takes the fun out of playing Pictionary or watching Call the Midwife. As a result, I’ve ended up making myself throw up at some point every Christmas for the last fifteen years, something that never (or extremely rarely) happens throughout the rest of the year. While I look forward to other aspects of the holiday season, this one only makes me feel dread and a kind of anticipatory shame.

“I come from a home where no one can express care or love through language, so they end up doing it through food,” says Neil, 23. “The problem is that this results in excesses of food at times like Christmas. I'm just surrounded by it, in a way that I'm not with my threadbare millennial fridge. And as an impulsive eater who's learned in my own life to never shop when hungry or sad, and only buy what I need, I find Christmas takes that control away and brings back the worst of my tendencies. And then you get in this strange mindset of being at home and that being your true, unalienated self, and its truest expression is to just mope about eating in pyjamas. That strange climbdown of identity just means you become even more self-loathing, which means another Chocolate Orange.”

This goes some way to explaining why so many of us struggle with food over Christmas. As much as it's related the time of year and the "it's Christmas, fuck it!" cultural mentality, it’s also about being back home and spending time with your family, often in suffocatingly close proximity. Family members might be critical about food or comment on your eating in a way that it’s easier to filter out for the rest of the year -- it’s often easier to tell your friends to shut up about this stuff without causing conflict. Trying to explain to your uncle why you've gone vegan or raw or keto might be a funny joke on Twitter for most of us, but for some people it can be anxiety-inducing to a harmful degree.

“My mother talks a lot about weight and size, which isn't helpful,” says Lily, “and my sister has a really dysmorphic relationship with her body and food. The whole family is a bit fucked.” Even if your family aren’t like this, it’s easy to regress when you’re back at home, to become a younger, less sure and confident version of yourself. This isn’t always about eating -- it can be as simple as resorting back to the role of surly teenager, or as harmless as enjoying winding up your siblings. But if you struggled with disordered eating growing up, then being in the same physical space as you were when you had those problems can make you try to deal with stress or unhappiness in the same way that you used to. For me, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, it’s like my mum’s house is haunted by the person I used to be and the problems I used to have. With all of this going on, combined with the abundance of food on offer, it’s not surprising that Christmas is difficult for so many people.

So what can we do about this? There’s obviously no easy solution, but a starting point might be changing the way we think about relapse -- it might sound counterintuitive, but shrugging it off can actually be the healthiest way to respond. “Having a slip is completely normal and not a sign of failure,” says Emmy Brumner, a psychotherapist who specialises in eating disorders and body image issues. “It’s more a sign that your recovery skills are being challenged by difficult situations. When people have a bad day in the clinic then we call it a bad day, that’s all it is. We do not use the word 'relapse' as it is completely unhelpful."

“People can be doing really well and have a bad day/week/month but it doesn’t mean they’re not doing really well anymore,” Emmy continues. “It means they are having a bad day, and we all do at times, don’t we? When we can see those times as just experiences that we can learn from, then we don’t hold the weight of the sense of relapse, of feeling a failure and that you have gone backwards.”

As well as changing the way we think about relapse, Emmy also suggests planning in advance as much as possible, considering what situations may be triggering and thinking of coping mechanisms that have worked for you before, as well as having a support network in place (which, sadly, might not be possible for everyone.) But there’s one aspect of planning she suggests we should avoid: “Try not to set yourself up by dictating rules that are going to be restrictive or leave you having to ‘monitor’ your intake. And try to accept that it’s ok to indulge over the holidays and that eating or drinking differently are normal and joyful aspects of celebrating.”

If you do have problems with eating at this time of year, whatever these may be, it seems that the most important thing, perhaps even more so than trying to circumvent them in the first place, is avoiding beating yourself up about it if you do find yourself slipping back into old habits and feelings. Whatever happens, you need to acknowledge that all the progress towards you've made towards your recovery and a healthy relationship with food and your body still counts. Remember that the person you are at Christmas isn’t necessarily representative of who you are throughout the rest of the year. And especially remember that there’s nothing shameful in taking pleasure from food. Good luck.

If you are struggling with food anxiety and/or disordered eating you can reach out to www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk. Their helpline services will be open 4 -- 8pm from 24 December to 1 January.

mental health
eating disorder