Along with an increase in stress, the holidays see unprecedented increases in disordered eating rhetoric. (Drops of Ink)

Education

Column: This winter, encourage eating

Holiday stress can make enjoying meals difficult for those who struggle with disordered eating. To avoid fueling an unhealthy relationship with food, keep comments about New Year's resolution diets private.
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January 5, 2022
Every December, malls wrap their fake indoor plants in silver tinsel, radio stations blast Christmas carols with different beats but the same lyrics, and people from Southern California convince themselves that 65 degrees is below freezing and worthy of a scarf, mug of hot chocolate, and audible comment about how cold it is outside. The switch that is holiday joy is flipped, and the only acceptable answer to “how are you?” is one of unabashed merriment. 

December can be fun: ice skating rinks pop up, those tiny striped candy canes magically appear on desks and in bags, families reunite, and fuzzy socks get their chance to shine. But for every eggnog scented, rose-tinted memory one person savors from the holidays, someone else is reminded of a month of stress, discomfort, and loneliness. Strained relationships with family, economic worries and school finals don’t magically disappear for the holidays and often see increases alongside the return of Mariah Carey.

In fact, such stress is so common that the American Psychological Association found that only 8% of people surveyed reported an overall increase in happiness around the winter holidays. Unfortunately, much of this tinsel-induced stress is the result of a capitalistic system and society, and is ultimately harder to combat on a local scale without the reevaluation and deconstruction of long-held traditions. 

But one thing we can control this holiday season? The number of youth ending the 2021 holiday season with a worse relationship with food than they began.

The holidays can be especially hard for those who struggle with eating: there are delicious, plentiful, and often “unhealthy” dishes everywhere you look. These foods are tantalizing. These foods are meant to be eaten and enjoyed, yet may instead be accompanied by constant scolding. Whether in the form of billboards, judgmental relatives, or sponsored influencers pushing new diet teas and meal replacement gummies, food can be painted as a villain leading indulgers to failure. For years, holiday meals have been dotted with reminders of body insecurities: “We’ll work this turkey off tomorrow, won’t we?” “Everyone deserves a cheat day.” “I’m not eating anything tomorrow to make up for this plate.” And, for years, such comments have worsened the body-image pool that youth look into.

The United States is already aware of this long-standing struggle with eating disorders in youth. A 2018 study estimated that as many as 10% of teen girls in the United States have an eating disorder at any given time, according to the The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

When talk of “new-year-diets” and “guilt-free days” are added to the equation, the pressure to conform to certain body types is only heightened and teens’ relationships with food are worsened. 

Disordered eating doesn’t deserve a platform to speak and recruit new youth over the holidays. One way to block such recruitment this holiday season is to watch your words to avoid fueling disordered eating and to keep discussion of diets and weight loss private. No matter how well-intentioned, discussing weight and plans to start a new diet in 2022 can be extremely triggering to those on the periphery of the conversation.

They may feel as if they should be starting a new exercise regime, too, or as if they should cut down on their caloric intake because others are. Even if meant to be a discussion of one’s individual health plans, remarks about calories or waistline size — especially in a season filled with so many conversations around and about food — so easily plant and water seeds of body dysmorphia in other peoples’ minds.

In all months, but especially around the winter holiday season, it’s important to not only be extra mindful of harmful language, but to also embrace healthy self-love patterns. Whenever possible, use the holidays as a chance to stress the fact that life can not be measured quantitatively. Life can not be measured by the numbers on a scale or the calories in a slice of cake any more than it can be measured by the size of jeans you wear or the number of stretch marks you’ve gained in the past year.

Remind yourself and others that the memories you’ll make from sitting at the dinner table and eating the food far outweigh any guilt gnawing at the back of your subconscious, bullying you away from food. And, most importantly, be kind and forgiving with yourself and your body, especially if you’re recovering from an eating disorder or find the holidays a stressful season for one of the plentitudes of other potential reasons.

2022 is sure to present its fair share of new challenges. As we sort through the good and bad of 2021 and decide which memories to bring with us into January, it’s important as ever to continue advocating for healthier relationships with food, and redirecting the way we discuss body image; one’s relationship with food lasts a lifetime, and it can be difficult. But throughout this holiday season, future ones, and beyond the winter months as well, kindly encourage yourself and others to strive for a new outlook on food and eating habits. For, there’s no reason an even trickier relationship with food needs to accompany us into the new year, too.

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