By Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW
Disclaimer and Trigger Warning: The author is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, not a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), and mentions of Binge Eating Disorder occur.
I don’t know about you, but due to COVID-19, my social calendar and the annual winter festivities I look forward to every year have come to a screeching halt this holiday season. However, I must admit, I’m not too bummed, since this means more time for cooking and having an excuse for one of my favorite hobbies: baking. In the winter months, I’m flooded with warm memories from my childhood of the one day each year my family and I would come together to bake and decorate cookies. For me, the sweet smell of chocolate chip cookies and the dusting of powdered sugar everywhere is a treasured memory. (In all honesty, it meant a lot to me because it was the one day a year my mom didn’t mind when the kitchen got messed up.)
Yes, the holidays can be a joyous time, but for many of us the season also invokes a great deal of stress and anxiety related to family, finances, and finals. This can especially be true during a pandemic, when our typical outlets to socialize, stay active and relax have been derailed. For someone struggling with Binge Eating Disorder, holiday stressors may lead to feelings of genuine distress.
Binge Eating Disorder is defined by having three out of five of the following symptoms, that have lasted at least three months:
- Feeling that you’re unable to control your eating.
- Eating large amounts of food, even when you’re full or not hungry.
- Rapidly snacking during emotional episodes.
- Eating without focusing on your food.
- Frequently eating alone or in secret.
Eating can be hard around the holidays, especially when family members feel entitled to make comments on your appearance or the size of your dessert plate. While yo-yo dieting around the holidays or watching your weight may seem normal in our hyper-fixated eyes, it’s important to know the difference between making healthy choices for ourselves and restricting. The billion dollar diet industry has created a narrative telling us to cut down on carbs and that sugar is the enemy. The industry says that the latest diet fad is the best and that our calories should be tracked; that dessert should be a sometimes-treat (but, truth be told, food should not be looked at as a reward, because food is fuel.)
For those wanting to change their relationship with food and their body, intuitive eating can be one good strategy. Tune in to what food your body wants and what sounds unappealing. People who restrict foods, as with dieting, often find themselves on the road to a restrict-binge-repeat cycle. Restricting calories leads to feeling deprived, because your body is not receiving what it needs nutritiously, which beelines to feelings of guilt and shame, binging and using food as a coping mechanism. Thus, the cycle repeats itself.
Instead, tune in to your body to gauge accurately the differences between your hunger and appetite. Hunger is when you feel your body needing food and appetite is the desire to eat. While this may seem simple, for some people it can be challenging to differentiate, due to our busy lives, being checked out on our phones or even just missing that healthy window of hunger. Practicing mindful eating by shutting down all distractions in order to fully enjoy what you’re eating; this can help you feel more satisfied. Slow down your eating in order to allow your stomach to send signals to the brain that say you’re full.
Other suggestions are to try “eating the rainbow” by getting a variety of fruits, veggies, protein, carbs and fats throughout the day. Remember, there’s no need to restrict any food groups unless there are health reasons to do so, despite what diet gurus and influencers may tell you. Skipping meals can lead to a lack of impulse control and overeating as a whole. Another tip is carrying a snack bag in your car to use for emergencies, such as when you are stuck in traffic, have no time to prepare food ahead of time, or need a food option that’s on the run. Items in the snack bag can range from bananas to granola bars to Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Yes, read that again. I did say Cheetos – because I don’t restrict and sometimes I want Cheetos.
Changing your relationship with food can be hard, but it’s a journey worth taking. Your body deserves to be nourished and replenished throughout the day. After all, it does so much for you. Don’t let others tell you what you can and can’t put into your body, because at the end of the day, you know yourself better than anybody else. So enjoy the holidays and focus on the fun, not the food.
If you or a loved one is struggling with a Binge Eating disorder, keep in mind that help is available. Individual therapy with a trained professional can help change the negative thoughts and behaviors that impact your relationship with food, through cognitive behavior therapy. An individualized treatment plan starts with raising one’s awareness of what happens before, during and after binging, while self-soothing and overcoming barriers to eating in moderation. Additionally, group therapy for binge eating or online support groups or communities can help you connect with others, feel less isolated and increase hopefulness through hearing other people’s success stories.