Christmas is often a very social time of year, where we get together with friends and family for large meals and boxes of Celebrations are passed around. When you have certain health goals, it can be frustrating to be surrounded by constant temptation and frequently lead to feelings of guilt when we ‘give in’.
Most of the time, guilt around food is related to ‘shoulds’ and strict rules, which we think we ought to be following. For example, that we should be eating certain foods, that we shouldn’t be eating chocolate, that we should only have 1-2 potatoes, and so on. And every time we break a rule, we feel guilty about it. So, what can we do to stop this?
1) Ditch the ‘shoulds’
‘Should’ sentences about food or drink come from a place of harsh restriction and striving for perfection.
Every time you catch yourself saying any sentence that has a ‘should’ in it, reformulate it to change it from a harsh rule to an attainable goal.
This kind of thought results in us feeling restricted. It’s human nature to want to do something more when we feel like it’s off limits!
Stop and reformulate this thought to:
Setting this as a positive intention means that we are less likely to feel guilty if we experience a slip-up and more likely to feel a sense of achievement if we stick to it.
2) Manage your expectations
There is much more temptation and opportunity to stray from your health goals over the festive period. It’s not necessary to be completely restrictive and say no to every indulgence. Try thinking ahead and managing your expectations of yourself in advance.
For example, if you have a work Christmas dinner on Friday, and you know it’s a 3-course meal, there is a high chance you will want a dessert that day. Consider this beforehand, and maybe in the few days leading up to the event, you could swap any sugary snacks (dried fruit, biscuits, chocolate) for healthy alternatives (veggie sticks and hummus, natural plain yoghurt, a handful of unsalted mixed nuts).
By thinking ahead and managing your own expectations, you can prepare for occasional indulgences and then not give in to spontaneous temptation, which often leaves us feeling guilty.
3) Practise mindful eating
When we’re cosying up on the sofa to watch The Holiday or Love Actually it’s easy to reach for a snack and finish it without much conscious thought.
Mindful eating is an important tool to help us become more aware of what we’re eating, how much we’re eating, and why we’re eating it. In the long run, this can help us control our portion sizes and stay in tune with what our body actually needs.
Eating our meals and snacks distraction-free is the first step to practising mindful eating. Try to avoid having a snack in front of the TV, on the phone, or while reading. If you have no distractions in front of you, then you can focus on the look, smell, flavour, and texture of your food and really enjoy it.
Then, try to slow down your eating. If we eat too quickly, it can be difficult to listen to our internal hunger cues, which tell us when we are full.
4) Avoid the all-or-nothing mindset
If you do spontaneously indulge with food or alcohol, try not to let it ruin the rest of your day or week. It’s completely fine to relax and enjoy festive celebrations. The important thing is trying to make sure it doesn’t affect the rest of your week.
This kind of thinking is one of the main drivers causing a small set-back to result in people feeling guilty and quitting altogether. ‘All-or-nothing’ thinking is when we see things purely in ‘black or white’.
Avoiding this kind of thinking will prevent something psychologists call the ‘what-the-hell effect’. This effect describes the cycle many people fall into once they have indulged slightly, regretted indulging, and then gone back for more because ‘what-the-hell, you’ve already blown it’.
Try thinking in shades of grey, which means thinking somewhere in between, for example, ‘I ate too much last night, but the whole week doesn’t have to be perfect. I can eat a healthy breakfast and lunch today and make the rest of the day OK’.
5) Detach moral value from food
Try to stop categorising foods as ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘treat’, as this encourages the idea that certain foods are off-limits. This kind of restriction not only makes these foods more appealing but can also harbour an unhealthy relationship with food, and make us obsess over our food choices.
Instead, foods that you know are less healthy are simply foods to eat in moderate portions, mindfully, and less often. Then, foods we know provide lots of nutritional value for us can be foods we try to eat every day.