Skip the Food Guilt This Year

I’ve spent much of the past week talking with people who’ve overindulged. ‘Tis the season for potlucks, parties, and pretty treats. In December, my office feels like a confessional.

Most people I work with are living with a chronic condition of some sort, like diabetes, fatty liver disease, or heart disease, and they’re trying to improve their health by changing their eating habits. Understandably, it’s frustrating when things don’t quite go as planned.

Far from criticizing or judging them, I often find myself trying to talk them out of their guilt. Eating is as natural as breathing, and just about anyone in the presence of tempting treats will indulge. (I will!) You’re biologically programmed to want more of that magical combination of sugar, salt, and fat.

Furthermore, many of these situations are a sign of a life well lived. One too many parties? Surrounded by baked gifts? Both signs that someone loves you. You are part of a community. Embrace that. It’s one of the characteristics of “blue zones,” regions where people live measurably longer lives.

Good food is itself a reason to celebrate. Many of these special foods are part of our culture, our families, our memories. Is it reasonable to deprive yourself of that enjoyment?

Either way, guilt is unproductive. It makes you feel bad, which can trigger more eating. (“Oh, what the hell, I’ve blown it now…”) Guilt is part of what Michelle May calls the eat-repent-repeat cycle. We overeat, so the next day we eat nothing but celery sticks and chicken breasts. Then someone shows up with rum balls and the cycle begins anew.

So is it hopeless? Should you throw in the towel and eat to excess until January 1? Of course not. A few things I suggest, in the quest to balance enjoyment and overindulgence:

  1. Be intentional about what you eat. Enjoy quality favourites and pass on the sea of treats that are just there. Pot of Gold in the break room, I’m looking at you.
  2. Think about how much you need to truly enjoy those favourites. Not Christmas without Turtles? Okay, but how many? Will one do it? Two? Probably by three or four they don’t taste as good, right? But we often keep nibbing unless there’s a plan.
  3. The best defense is a good offense. In other words, plan a healthy snack. If you’ve had a handful of peanuts and a mandarin orange at 3pm, you probably won’t give that mass marketed junk a second glance as you head out the door at 5pm.
  4. Get enough rest. I know, easier said than done, but it will help you resist temptations.
  5. Plan some outdoor activities to see friends and family. Buck the “Come on over for a drink” tradition with “How about a walk in the park?” 
  6. Watch the alcohol. I know, a glass of wine (or three) is part of the holiday tradition, but in addition to the 150 or so calories in the glass, the more you drink, the more you may end up eating as well. What’s the least number of drinks you can have and still enjoy yourself?
  7. Do what you can to control your food environment. Often what you see is what you eat. Move temptations out of sight and put out a festive looking bowl of raspberries or cherry tomatoes instead. At a party, move away from the food. Put baking away as soon as it cools. Give away treats you don’t want to eat.
  8. And when you do decide to have a treat, enjoy it. Savour it. Stop for a moment and do nothing else but experience it. And no guilt!

And then go back to eating nourishing, health-promoting foods not because you feel guilty about what you ate the night before, but because you love your body and want to take care of it and feel great. Happy holidays!

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