How to Take Back the Holidays from Diet Culture

Don't let toxic comments about your food or body ruin your holiday cheer. This playbook will help you opt out of diet culture so you can fully enjoy the festivities.

Diet Culture During Holidays
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The holidays are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, spent bonding with family and friends and noshing on delicious foods that make you feel oh-so-nostalgic. And yet, the season can often also bring up difficult emotions and conversations — particularly when it comes to the food on your plate and the size of your body.

Specifically, you may find yourself subject to toxic, though perhaps not ill-intentioned, comments about how much you're eating and questions about your weight from the loved ones at your dinner table, as well as messages in the media suggesting you "earn" your celebratory meals. These conversations and posts can not only cause discomfort, shame, and negative self-talk, but for some individuals, they can trigger disordered eating habits. What's at the root of these exhausting, joy-draining comments? More often than not, it's diet culture, an oppressive belief system — equating thinness with health and morality and categorizing food and ways of eating as either "good" or "bad" — that has long been engrained in modern culture.

But diet culture doesn't have to be the centerpiece of your holiday season: There are steps you can take to keep your festivities focused on what truly matters, including cultivating more awareness around your own thoughts and behaviors, nourishing yourself on all levels, and setting boundaries with your friends and family.

The Pervasiveness of Diet Culture During the Holidays

Diet culture and its effects can be felt year-round, yet it seems to be in its sneakiest and most intense form during the holidays toward the end of the year when food is central to the festivities. While media and social platforms are some of the biggest outlets of the season's toxic messaging surrounding food, body, and exercise, comments from others — whether it be your coworker or your mom — can be the hardest to navigate and control.

"You might hear, 'I skipped breakfast and lunch so I can eat more during Thanksgiving dinner' or 'I fasted all day so I can really dig in at the Christmas party,'" says Letal Yerganjiev, M.S., R.D., C.D.C.E.S., a registered dietitian in Atlanta. "Or, maybe a family member is suggesting everyone participate in a turkey trot or morning workout to 'work off the food.'"

But diet culture can also show up in comments such as:

"I can't be 'bad' with desserts this year. Sugar is like poison."

"Once January rolls around, I'm going to be 'good' again."

"I enjoyed myself way too much with all that food and those cocktails. I need to work out even harder tomorrow."

"Wow, you're really getting a second helping?"

While these types of remarks are pretty normalized, they can actually harm the person saying them, the person on the receiving end, and the bystanders overhearing them. Even if you're not directly being shamed for your appearance or judged for the contents on your plate, simply being around the disordered, negative talk can make it difficult for you to feel peaceful around food and in your body. These comments fuel rigid approaches to health that simply aren't backed by science, sucking the pleasure and joy out of eating experiences. Ultimately, these messages link food with morality, exercise with punishment, and generally reinforce unhealthy relationships with food and your body.

And when you prescribe to diet-culture beliefs, unnecessary amounts of guilt and shame come with it, says Melissa Nieves, M.P.H., L.N.D., R.D., a registered dietitian in Puerto Rico and the founder of Fad Free Nutrition Blog. "If someone does not meet their own expectations for how they 'should' behave during the holiday season — for example, by eating a certain amount or type of food — they may feel like they have 'failed,'" she says. "This can lead to negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and frustration, which can interfere with the enjoyment of the holiday season."

"If someone does not meet their own expectations for how they 'should' behave during the holiday season — for example, by eating a certain amount or type of food — they may feel like they have 'failed.'"

— Melissa Nieves, M.P.H., L.N.D., R.D., a registered dietitian in Puerto Rico

The onslaught of diet-culture messaging can also lead to isolation and preoccupation, notes Nieves. "When you are constantly bombarded with images and messages about how you 'should' look and behave during the holidays, it can be difficult to connect with others in a meaningful way." In other words, behaviors rooted in diet culture can steal special moments with loved ones, adds Yerganjiev. "The more preoccupied you are with the way you are going to navigate eating during this time of year, the more it takes you away from the present moment," she says. "Some may skip out on joyous moments with their families because they are working out every day leading up to Thanksgiving dinner. Others may carry guilt from overeating at a holiday work event and not partake in the cookie decorating with their families."

Comments rooted in diet culture don't stop at food and exercise. "Fatphobic and body-shaming comments, especially from friends and family members, can make the holiday season a difficult time for people struggling with body acceptance," says Nieves. "For some reason, people feel entitled to make comments on other people's bodies, which is inappropriate, unhelpful, and extremely harmful to mental and emotional health, as well as self-esteem." IRL, this might look like your brother mentioning that your cousin's wife gained weight and "let herself go" while chatting with you at Thanksgiving dinner. Making negative comments about people's body — either straight to their face or behind their back — further enforces weight stigma, which can leave lasting negative impacts on people's physical, mental, and emotional health, research shows.

Regardless of the type of comment, diet-culture messaging can be especially harmful to folks suffering or recovering from an eating disorder, using disordered eating behaviors, struggling with body image, or living in a larger body. FTR, it's impossible to tell whether someone has an eating disorder or is dealing with body image issues simply by looking at them, as they can manifest in folks of all shapes and sizes. So even well-meaning comments can trigger a relapse or make the holiday season — which is already highly stressful — even more taxing.

How to Respond to Diet-Culture Messaging As It Happens

You deserve to experience the holidays without obsessing over your food choices and weight. Here are some tools that can help you find freedom.

Redirect the conversation.

If you're caught in a diet-culture trap at a holiday event, try changing the subject to something more lighthearted and enjoyable for all parties involved (think: "Have you seen that new movie — ?"). If you're feeling confident, you can also say you would rather not talk about food and body topics. "You don't owe any explanation as to why you don't entertain conversations around diet culture," says Yerganjiev. If it feels authentic and comfortable, you can even use it as an opportunity to share a healthier perspective on food, health, and the holidays (think: "Actually, you don't have to work out to earn a holiday meal…").

Practice mindfulness.

When you hear comments or messages rooted in diet culture and notice stress and anxiety creeping in, press pause. Put your feet on the ground, bring your awareness to the soles of your feet and the floor, and find your breath. You may even want to hold an object that helps you feel centered and safe (think: a photo of someone you love or a shell from your last beach trip). From there, take a moment to ask yourself what the holidays are — and are not — about for you this year (e.g., reconnecting with old friends or enjoying a vacation) and consider if the diet-culture messages align with your vision. Chances are, anything rooted in diet culture is a distraction from your values and authentic self.

After grounding yourself, you come back to what is driving these comments, says Nieves. "Be aware of the many ways in which diet culture can seep into holiday celebrations and know what's behind this messaging — mostly misogynistic attitudes and the dieting industry looking to make extra bucks," she says. (ICYDK, the diet industry is worth more than $70 billion and has racist and sexist roots, encouraging you to focus entirely on the size of your body instead of on being a nourished human with a fulfilling, dynamic life. But that's a topic for another day).

Use an affirmation.

What are the words you need to hear when you feel impacted by diet culture? Typically, it helps to come back to your values. So when a loved one makes a remark about the amount of food on your plate or a friend asks you to go for a run with them to "burn off dinner," write one these affirmations down or say them aloud.

"My body is the least interesting thing about me."

"I deserve to authentically connect with those around me."

"I am allowed to take pleasure in eating."

Give yourself permission to take breaks or leave.

If you're at an event where diet-culture talk is amplified and you're being negatively affected by it, know it's okay to give yourself time to step outside or go to the bathroom for a few minutes. Breaks are great opportunities to reconnect with yourself and your affirmation. Also, give yourself the option to head home when you are ready. It's okay to prioritize your mental and emotional health over small talk with your second cousin.

How to Minimize the Impact Diet Culture This Holiday Season

Opting out of diet culture is easier said than done, as its messages can easily creep into your social media feeds, TV binges (thanks, ads!), and conversations with friends and family. But doing so can be empowering and improve your holiday experience. Here are some ways to reduce its impact before you head to your company party or Friendsgiving.

Set boundaries ahead of time.

Say you're going to your aunt's house for a holiday meal, and you know she's bound to make a weight- or food-focused comment (e.g. asking if you're sure you want another piece of pumpkin pie). Before you head to the event, give her a call to set a respectful boundary. You might say, "I'm working on my relationship with food and would rather not talk about food or body topics this year." There are far more interesting things to discuss than what's on your plate or the size of your body, but if you're concerned the conversation will go sour, brainstorm alternative topics to discuss at the dinner table.

Imagine a safe space.

If you appreciate guided imagery, try closing your eyes and imagining some sort of boundary around yourself before heading to your next gathering. It could be a beautiful, luminous light or a cocoon of sorts — whatever comes to you and helps you feel safe within yourself. Throughout the event, if you notice disordered food and body comments around you, take a moment to come back to your imagined safe space in your mind.

Be intentional with social media.

The year's end can be the perfect time to reflect on how much time you spend on social media, how much time you want to spend, and why you use it. Once you're clear with your social media intentions, curate a feed that aligns with your values and uplifts — not disempowers — you. "This can be a great time to get rid of any social media accounts that perpetuate diet culture and weight stigma and instead find those that promote body liberation and self-acceptance," says Nieves. For example, you may look for posts promoting the message that all bodies are good bodies and all foods fit and steer clear of content promoting calorie counting or weight loss, including before-and-after photos or "what I eat in a day" videos.

Set yourself up for success with self-care and a support system.

Having a network of loved ones who understand your viewpoint is one of the simplest ways you can disengage from diet culture this season. "Create a support system of friends and family who are also aware of the harm of diet culture and will not judge or pressure you regarding your food choices," suggests Nieves. You may also want to focus on practicing intuitive eating, which entails eating regular meals and snacks, adopting an all-foods-fit mentality, focusing on satisfaction, honoring your body's cues, and unlinking food from morality. All in all, "take care of yourself both mentally and physically by getting enough sleep, eating from a place of body wisdom, and practicing self-care," says Nieves.

Taking the path less traveled and opting out of diet culture takes commitment, resilience, and patience, especially during the holiday season. But the rewards — genuine connection, presence, and pleasure — make it well worth the effort.

If you are struggling with an ED, you can call the toll-free, confidential NEDA Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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