Life After Diets
The Anti-Dieting Thanksgiving
A tactical guide to the food mines you’ll encounter during this holiday
It’s officially that time of year again. It’s dark and gloomy as I scurry from office to apartment and back again, the air is hurting my face, and invitations for various office holiday parties that I have no intention of attending are filling my inbox with festive fonts and delightful images of parties past.
Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not a Grinch. I don’t turn up my nose at the turn of the seasons and I have already shamelessly begun adding Christmas music to playlists as I clean my apartment, commute to work, and go for runs through the frosty air.
But as the holidays creep up on me, I’m very aware of the approaching obstacle course of food and family landmines I’ll be navigating for the next six weeks, starting with the biggest obstacle of them all: Thanksgiving.
When I was in the throes of my eating disorder, I’d often skip holidays, particularly Thanksgiving, telling my family or friends that I was sick or had a migraine, and then showing up for the evening festivities when I knew that the remains of dinner and dessert would be safely packed away in to-go containers, out of sight. I had learned that I couldn’t “trust” myself with large spreads of food, and my family’s traditions generally include more of a marathon of eating than a single large sprint of a meal. Allow me to paint a picture of our traditional Italian Thanksgiving.
First, there’s the fruit and nut bowls on the table when you arrive, followed by antipasto platters of meats, cheeses, olives, peppers, breads, and various olive oil and vinegar dips. When I was younger, a first course of lasagna would precede the main meal, but we fortunately moved away from that several years ago. After you’re allowed to digest for a few minutes, my uncle will happily announce the main event: a 28–30 pound turkey with stuffing and enough side dishes (of which butter plays a prominent role in the ingredient list) to cover the table with little room for the actual plates you’ll be eating from. Then, finally, after the clean-up and packing away of leftovers, there will be so many desserts that the quantity will generally average at least one full-sized option per person.
My mouth is honestly watering at the thought of what lays ahead for me next week, which is a nice change of pace from the dread that used to fill me as this holiday approached.
There’s a real part of me that regrets every missed holiday or celebration that was spent patiently waiting for everyone to be done eating so that I wouldn’t be tempted to do the same. I regret the missed time with my family, particularly when I reflect on how little time I actually have with them.
Still, no matter where you are on your recovery journey, or what your relationships to food and family are, there are bound to be some difficult moments that pop up. Here’s my road map of Thanksgiving obstacles and some tips for dealing with them:
Family comments on your food choices
Are you trying to watch your portions? Are you eating more than usual while you’re in recovery for your disordered eating? Are you just too full for seconds? I guarantee someone will notice and they will take it upon themselves to make a casual comment on it. It’s unlikely that this will come from a place of malevolence (at least I hope), but sometimes it can feel as though people can’t quite help themselves from commenting on the food choices of others. I’m already bracing myself for comments on the “fake” food I sometimes bring to family gatherings because I don’t eat meat.
I’m adamant about never needing to explain your food choices to anyone, but clearly communicating your goals and feelings is helpful. Direct statements like “it makes me feel uncomfortable when you comment on my food” or “ this is what I feel like having right now, I’ll have something else after if I’m still hungry” can be enough to let well-meaning busy-bodies know that their point was received, but that further comments are unnecessary. The more firm you are without going into specifics, the less likely you’ll receive any additional comments.
Family commenting on your looks
Similarly, when your family can’t seem to stop themselves from commenting on any aspect of your appearance, it’s easy to feel hurt or defensive, especially if these comments are about weight or body size changes (in any direction, really). This is particularly true if you’re a woman. And over thirty. And unmarried. But I digress.
Comments about weight, either gain or loss, are not appropriate. Respond the same way you would to comments about your food — directly and honestly. Let anyone who comments on your weight or looks, whether positively or negatively, know that their statements aren’t helpful and that you’re focusing on your health and not your weight. And if Aunt Susan still doesn’t lay off, ask how her diet is going. Either she’ll take the hint and back off, or, if she’s currently obsessed with the latest fad diet, she’ll launch into a speech on the virtues of eating like a caveman.
My partner and I do our best to share our holidays with our respective families. Since both families live nearby it’s relatively easy to schedule time for two dinners. However, this does mean actually eating two dinners, so as not to offend either family, and possibly two desserts, so as not to offend my personal appetite for sweets.
I can generally trust myself to know when I want more food and when I’m full and ready to stop eating. My approach is to do the same things I would normally do. I eat a normal breakfast, treat the first family stop as lunch, and the second family stop as dinner. Viewing the Thanksgiving meals like any other meals on any other day keeps me from feeling out of control, but also stops me from feeling guilty. If I want that second helping, I’ll have it. If I’m full and want to stop eating after a few bites, that’s what the to-go containers are for. It’s that simple. And should anyone have an opinion to express about that, I’m ready with the tips above to put a stop to it. I will not be guilted into over-eating or under-eating to make someone else happy.
The dessert table
Because the dessert table is a literal dining room table filled with enough desserts for everyone to have an entire cake or pie or plate of cookies or tray of doughnuts to themselves, this has always proven to be a tough situation to handle. It doesn’t have to be.
Eat dessert if you want dessert. Skip it or take some home to enjoy later if you’re full. Dessert is my favorite part of virtually any meal, but it’s not as enjoyable if you’re uncomfortably full. You just won’t enjoy it if it’s causing you discomfort. I always take some home so that I can eat it when I’m actually hungry and can fully enjoy it. Instead, I’ll have some tea or coffee so I can still be at the table, talking and laughing with everyone else.
On the other hand, if you’re cutting back on sugar or just want to have some healthier options, consider bringing a lighter option like a fruit salad, angel food cake, or a berry crumble. You can control the ingredients and be sure to have something you’ll actually enjoy. It will definitely be appreciated because there’s bound to be someone else at your gathering who would enjoy something lighter than pumpkin pie and cookies
Alcohol (and the need for it due to the family issues above)
I don’t drink very often these days, after reading an article about the risks of even moderate drinking far outweighing the health benefits from things like wine. I was completely sober for over a year, and this really helped in my recovery around that same time. These days, I enjoy a glass of wine or two from time to time, but I definitely don’t make it a habit. There are plenty of people who enjoy drinking and whose families have made certain drinks part of their regular traditions. My family likes to do shots of tequila toward the end of the night. Being a 97 year old trapped in the body of a 32 year old, I’m not the biggest fan of this tradition, so I sit that one out or raise a glass of seltzer if I want to feel like I’m taking part in the festivities.
Being around family for long periods of time can be stressful, and the desire for a drink or two to take the edge off is understandable, even necessary. If you definitely don’t want to drink, even if it’s part of the tradition, stick to water, seltzer, and other low calorie or sugar-free options that will save room for other things you’d prefer more.
Leftovers are a tough one. If you’re hosting, the best thing you can do is buy inexpensive to-go containers to hand out to your family and friends as you start to clear the meal from the table. It encourages everyone to take leftovers, and you can portion out whatever is left (or whatever you want to keep for yourself) so that you can make a few meals out of it, without it lingering too long or going to waste. If you’re a guest, bring your own to-go container, particularly one that has separated portions. You can pack a single meal to enjoy the next day (or as a midnight snack for later, whatever, no judgment), and not have a fridge full of heavy leftovers haunting you for the next week.
I cannot stress this enough: do not wake up the day after Thanksgiving and immediately think about how to compensate for the food and general laziness of the previous day. Spending time with your family, enjoying traditions, good food, and (hopefully) a lot of laughter and quality time is priceless. I never again want to give up time with people I love because it doesn’t fit into my diet or routine. My body will adjust and my weight will stabilize after a few days, but I know very well now that I will never get back that time. I’ve missed out on so many things over the years because of my obsession with food and weight loss and I absolutely will not lose out on more of them over stress or guilt relate to food or my body.
After the food is packed away and the table cleared, know that whatever you’ve eaten that day and whatever exercise you didn’t do ultimately cannot have that big of an impact on you. Don’t restrict, don’t exercise to make up for it, and don’t punish yourself for enjoying your life.
If you’d like to read more about my quest to be healthy and destroy diet culture, check out these stories as well. Thanks for reading!
Talk Healthy To Me
Changing the way you talk about food, exercise, and weight and why it’s crucial for your health