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How to avoid talking diets, weight loss and more during the holidays

The holiday season is upon us, and what should be a time for togetherness is often accompanied by a bitter note of stress: navigating complex family dynamics, dodging intrusive questions from well-meaning relatives and the general anxiety of seeing people you may not have seen in years due to the pandemic.

For those struggling with body image or their relationship to food, the holidays can be extra stressful. Fears about gaining weight, and obsessive thoughts about nutrition and body size, can stop a person from eating their favorite foods and enjoying the festivities.

And when a gathering is centered around food, like it is at Thanksgiving, it can be hard to break away from what experts call diet culture.

“Diet culture interrupts and interferes with our ability to enjoy ourselves and to connect with others,” says Lisa Du Breuil, a clinical social worker at Mass General Hospital.

Diet culture conflates size and health, equating weight loss and thinness with being healthy, according to Du Breuil. Though it’s certainly not a new concept, with the advent of social media, diet culture is hard to escape from in our daily lives: Instagram posts showing transformation photos of bodies before and after losing weight; fad diets, like keto and Atkins, that cycle in and out of fashion; several news articles dissecting what a certain female artist did to lose weight. It’s all around us.

Leaked internal communications even reveal that Facebook, which recently rebranded itself as Meta and owns Instagram, is acutely aware of the photo-sharing platform's detrimental effect on teenage girls, according to reporting done by the Wall Street Journal. A slide presentation from 2019 summarizing the company's research reads: "We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls."

A big part of diet culture, says Du Breuil, is the rules we set for ourselves surrounding food, like restrictive eating or labeling certain foods as "bad."

“These imposed rules about food separates us from our own innate, intuitive hunger and satiety cues."

Lisa Du Breuil, a clinical social worker at Mass General Hospital

“These imposed rules about food separates us from our own innate, intuitive hunger and satiety cues,” says Du Breuil, who specializes in treating people with co-occurring eating disorders.

These behaviors and rules are so normalized and ingrained in our society that we often don’t even realize we’re practicing diet culture, and assume we’re practicing being healthy instead. But Du Breuil says there’s a big difference between being healthy and dieting.

“Dieting is about changing the size of your body. Making your body smaller is what gets centered, and because that's the goal, many diets are actually not good for your health,” says Du Breuil. “ ‘Practicing being healthy’ would mean focusing on actual health markers (like how stressed you feel, your sleep quality, any chronic pain, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, cholesterol, etc...) or focusing on something that you are missing: strength, flexibility, stamina and then changing your behaviors or environment (not your body size) to make changes.”

Jessi Haggerty, a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor based in Salem, says this concern over body size instead of overall health contributes to a larger culture.

“I’m all for body autonomy, but diet culture glorifies disordered eating behaviors and thinness, that then turns to glorifying fatphobia,” says Haggerty. “That leads to weight bias in the culture and all of the other things that exist in the culture — including in our school and healthcare systems.”

This focus on restriction and weight is only heightened during the later months of the year. The concept of “holiday weight gain” is rampant throughout these months, with posts and articles on weight loss tips inundating social media, and commercials advertising weight loss diets and gym discounts for those who want to start their New Year’s resolution of losing weight early. In looking at Google Trends search data, researchers have found weight-loss and exercise-related searches were highest during the winter months. Not to mention, one of the most common resolutions Americans make each year is to lose weight.

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“The idea of dieting never leads to any positive outcomes for any individuals,” said Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, obesity medicine physician and scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Research has shown that dieting can often lead to weight cycling, losing and gaining weight repeatedly, which can have harmful physiological and mental impacts.

The holiday season can be a minefield when it comes to diet culture, says Haggerty. Some people starve themselves so they can eat more later, or beat themselves up internally after eating a second slice of pie — or put in a two-hour long workout the morning after Thanksgiving to compensate for any "extra" calories from the previous day's meal.

“We’ve been conditioned to think that we’re supposed to have ‘tight control’ over our food intake and our exercise regimen, and that the holidays are a time we get to ‘splurge,’ and eat all our favorite foods — and then we have to ‘get back on track,’” says Haggerty.

Another issue that comes up with the holidays is anxiety related to weight gain during the year. Du Breuil and Haggerty say one of the most common concerns they hear from their clients leading up to the holiday season is apprehension over comments their family might make over their appearance.

“This year, it’s much worse for lots of people because many people haven’t seen their family for over a year,” due to the pandemic, says Du Breuil. She suggests her client have a conversation with family ahead of time to set boundaries and make it clear they’re not interested in talking about their weight or image.

In addition to direct comments, idle dining table chatter that may seem innocuous — an aunt saying how much weight she lost this year or someone suggesting ingredient substitutions to make a dish have fewer calories — can also have damaging effects on someone’s relationship with food and their body image. Haggerty suggests those that struggle with these topics have a plan to take a break and step away when those unavoidable conversations come up.

“Step outside, go into a separate room, maybe you have an allied family member that you can step away with so you don’t feel like you always have to be entrenched in those conversations.” says Haggerty.

In the end, you don’t have to allow diet culture to interfere with your holiday enjoyment, says Du Breuil. Partake in eating your favorite foods without guilt, appreciate the time you have with the people you love, and be mindful about doing whatever makes you feel good.

Related:

Hafsa Quraishi WBUR Newsroom Fellow
Hafsa Quraishi is WBUR’s inaugural Newsroom Fellow.

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