While the holidays should be a time for gratitude, appreciation and quality time with family and friends, it too often turns into an entire season focused on food guilt, diet traps, body negativity and stress. It is during the holiday season that we often begin to think "next year will be different" or "starting in January, I'll get back on track". But, what if I told you that you didn't need to "get back on track" because you don't need to be "on a track" at all? What if, instead of continuing the yearly cycle of binging and restricting around the holiday season and the new year, I could help you to solidify habits that will carry you through the entire year (and years to come)? Keep reading to learn why food freedom can be good for your health - both mental and physical health - and why a change in attitude may be the only change you need to make this holiday season!
What is Food Freedom?
Food freedom refers to the ability to eat and enjoy different foods, regardless of perceived nutritional value and without feelings of guilt or negativity. This concept deems food as "food" - not "good" or "bad", but "just food". Some foods may be more nutritious than others and some foods may be more suitable for an individual based on dietary needs (i.e. lactose free milk for those with lactose intolerance, a gluten free bread option for those with celiac, etc.) but at the end of the day, that holiday cookie shouldn't come with a side of guilt or negative feelings. This concept becomes especially important during the holidays, when I often hear people make comments about their feelings regarding their food choices, many times at the expense of the food experience! If you choose to eat the food, enjoy the food and move on. Truly accepting food freedom takes a lot of work in terms of undoing what we have been taught (i.e. "veggies are good and cake is bad"). I find that it is most helpful to consider a few steps if this is a new concept for you:
Consider your food choices based on your body and your mind. What I mean by that is choose foods that will serve your body and your mind well, so both can be at peace. For instance, if you truly want a cookie, eat a cookie and be at peace with that decision. However, if you want a traditional cookie and you are unable to tolerate gluten, instead of saying "screw it" and feeling sick, opt for a cookie that you will tolerate (i.e. a gluten free cookie). If you are hungry and you know that the cookie will not leave you truly satisfied, choose something that will, such as a balanced snack that contains protein, carbohydrates and fat (like turkey cheese roll ups with veggies and fruit, or hard boiled egg on top of avocado toast). As you can see, sometimes you have a craving for something, but you may also recognize that, while you know that food will taste good, it just isn't something you want right now...because you know it is available and you have permission to eat it whenever you want, so that time may not be right now (making it easier to pass up, or enjoy - depending on how you feel at that time).
Change your language. Instead of thinking "I can't have this dessert right now", think about how you will feel (mentally and physically) if you consume that food. Then, replace "I can't" with "I will feel (insert feeling here) if I consume this food". For example: "I will feel satisfied if I consume this piece of pumpkin pie now" or "I will feel sick if I consume this extra brownie right now". Use this to then consider the first tip (above) and allow your body and your mind to be at peace with your food decision.
Recognize that there is no perfect diet, perfect day or perfect meal. At different times, your body may need different things. Just because you ate a second helping or a dessert does not mean you "messed up a perfect day". We have a ton of eating opportunities and a balanced diet means that you are consuming a variety of foods, each providing different benefits (various nutrients, satisfaction, etc). So, remember that each eating opportunity is a choice and the best choice for you may be different at various times.
So, What Does Food Freedom Have to do with the Holidays?
Food freedom means that the comments regarding how "bad" you are because you ate holiday cookies need to go out the window and you need to accept your food choices. Period. Now, many people think that if they give themselves permission to eat every food, all caution will be thrown to the wind. While it is possible that after restricting certain foods for a long time you may be more drawn to these foods, this is very likely to dissipate over time if you do give yourself permission to eat these foods, as you will begin to understand whether or not you truly want that food (and if you want it, enjoy it)! That food will also likely be taken off of that pedestal (where it currently resides) and over time, you will see that food as just another food option, rather than a can't-miss opportunity (because you never let yourself have this food, so if it's available at this holiday party it becomes a free-for-all - sound familiar?).
The truth is, holiday eating should not be much different than your typical day, because your typical day-to-day should include a variety of foods (without food guilt). Your plate should still contain carbohydrates, fat, protein and veggies and ultimately be balanced, but the truth is, if your plate tips heavier toward one nutrient on a few meals around the holiday season, it's unlikely to cause any significant changes to your overall health.
Portion control is another topic that comes up often and, while it may be helpful to understand recommended serving sizes, it is also helpful to understand that you may require different portions of foods at different times, based on how much you ate before, your activity level, etc. Instead of focusing heavily on portions, consider the tips discussed above and let that guide you toward the appropriate food choice. For example, if you are hungry enough to eat 15 cookies, then maybe you could consider having a more substantial, nutritious snack or meal and then have the cookie after, if you still want it, knowing that a cookie (or a few) will not satisfy your hunger alone. However, if you are not very hungry and you know a cookie will provide some satisfaction, it is perfectly okay to allow yourself to have the cookie! It's all about context and making the best choice for your body and your mind at that given time!
Set Realistic Goals (And Make Them SMART)
With the holidays and the new year often comes resolutions. While I do not think you need to wait until the new year to begin setting goals, I have no issue with choosing anytime (and sure, the new year is as good of a time as any) to begin making some beneficial changes. What I do have an issue with, however, is people setting unrealistic goals for themselves and then feeling like failures for not achieving these lofty goals. Goals should push you, but they should still be attainable. In my nutrition counseling, I use the SMART goal system. SMART is an acronym that stands for:
This essentially means that goals are attainable, you know whether or not you did them and they are relevant to your priorities. When setting goals for yourself in the new year, shifting your attitude and your goal-setting behavior may prove to help you better achieve those goals. So, for example, if you currently do not exercise at all and you want to begin exercising, a poor example of a goal would be:
"I'm going to exercise 6 days per week"
This is a poor example because it is not specific (what type of exercise?), it is not truly measurable because there is no distinction regarding duration/intensity, it is likely not achievable (as anticipating going from 0 days per week to 6 days per week is quite lofty and likely not sustainable), and there is no time period provided. Instead, a better example might be:
"I'm going to do at least 30 minutes of activity such as walking, jogging or yoga at least 2 days per week for the next week" (and then once that goal is achieved, you can re-evaluate whether you would like to continue or perhaps increase the duration, intensity, amount of times per week, etc. and continue to improve).
Goal setting can be difficult, but it is helpful to remember to keep things as specific as possible, so that you have clear guidelines, and to keep goals attainable, so that they are realistic. Taking baby steps will ultimately get you to an overarching goal faster than if you were to overwhelm yourself and likely fail to meet that goal.
And while we're on the subject of activity, please do something you enjoy (and don't force yourself to do activities that you dread)! The best exercise is the one you will stick with - and every little bit counts. Keep in mind that a 10 minute walk is better than nothing and if you hate running, forcing yourself to pound the pavement for 1 hour 5 days per week will feel miserable. Instead, focus on activities that you actually look forward to doing! For me, you may already know that I love barre, walking my dog and going on long walks and hikes with my hubby. Now that I don't force myself to run, I sometimes want to run and will do it when I feel an urge to go running, but it is not part of my typical routine, because it was so easy for me to blow off (because TBH, running isn't my favorite thing to do)!
Consider Adding vs. Restriction
Too often, I hear people discussing ways in which they will remove foods from their diet either during or after the holiday season. For example "I'm avoiding all sugar", "I'm avoiding all carbs" or "I'm cutting out grains". One question I always ask is why are you restricting these foods? This helps the person to understand the root cause of their decisions. For example, when someone says they plan to avoid all carbs starting in January, it may be because that person believes that if they cut out all carbs, they will lose weight. So, the motivation is actually weight loss, not restricting carbs and the carbs are, in that person's mind, the behavior change to get there.
However, I like to put a positive spin on things, so I tend to develop goals based on adding health-related behaviors in, rather than limiting or restricting perceived negative behaviors. Instead of putting all of that energy into avoiding all carbs, what if we made a goal that focused on consuming more fiber-filled whole grains, fruits and starchy vegetables as carbohydrate sources, rather than refined carbs? Instead of eliminating all food and doing a juice cleanse, what if you planned to incorporate more nutritious foods, such as fruits and vegetables? Instead of restricting all legumes and grains because you believe they do not sit well with you, what if you make a goal to meet with a dietitian who can help you to understand potential dietary triggers and guide you through a protocol safely, without restrictions that may be unnecessary for you?
Plan to incorporate health-related behaviors into your lifestyle, which will likely edge out behaviors you wish to limit anyways, without putting so much focus on negativity and restriction!
What If You DO Have Dietary Restrictions?
Of course, there are many people (and I mean many, because I work with a ton of them) with legitimate dietary restrictions. Whether you are following a low FODMAP protocol for IBS, a gluten free diet for celiac, a dairy-free diet for a cow's milk allergy, a meat-free diet for personal preference, (and the list goes on), I urge you to continue to think positively regarding your necessary restrictions and to resist the urge to restrict more than you need! Yes, a new dietary restriction can be a major lifestyle change and result in a diet overhaul. However, this change is necessary for you to feel your best and be your healthiest self! Looking at this change through a positive lens can help you to appreciate why you are undergoing this change and appreciate its effects. If you feel overwhelmed or stressed regarding dietary changes, meeting with a registered dietitian who is knowledgeable regarding that specific protocol may be helpful in limiting stress and providing education, resources and support.
If you do not have medical (or strong personal or religious) dietary restrictions, I urge you to consider a cost/benefit analysis before you voluntarily sign up to restrict your intake and add stress to your life. If you are considering removing foods related to symptom management, weight management or any other reason, I recommend meeting with someone who can provide science-backed facts and help you to meet your goals in a safe manner.
Have a Healthy, Happy Holiday and New Year!
Remember that health encompasses mental and physical health, not just one or the other. Taking both aspects of health into consideration as you enjoy the holiday season (and the new year and years to come) will help you to enjoy a balanced lifestyle that is free from (or limited in) restrictions and filled with gratitude and positivity. My challenge to you this year is, instead of another fad diet or detox, challenge yourself to trust the process and make sustainable changes that bring peace to your body and your mind.
If you are curious about meeting with a registered dietitian and previously thought that the holiday season was a bad time to begin this process, feel free to contact me and I can discuss my food freedom approach with you in order to repair gut health, food relationships and many things in between!
Wishing you and your loved ones a healthy, happy holiday season with limited stress, lots of gratitude (and some delicious holiday recipes)!
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