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Food, Family and the Holidays

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Binge Eating Disorder » Featured Article

By Ondina Nandine Hatvany, MFT

Ondina Nandine Hatvany, MFT

If you tend to struggle with food, weight and body image, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas can be particularly challenging, because they revolve so much around food and mealtimes. For the food addict*, it can feel like there is no escape. Unlike other addictions food is not something you can simply go cold turkey (pun intended) especially this time of year.

Following are some tips for dealing with the food, family and holidays dilemma:

1) Identify your trigger foods and situations.

A ‘trigger food’ is food that when eaten makes someone feel out of control or compulsive with food. Figuring out which foods put you in that “I can’t stop” mode is really important. For some, it’s the first taste of sugar that gets them craving for more. For others, it’s the carbs (bread, cake etc.) that jump starts the “bottomless pit feeling.” Surprisingly, trigger foods are often linked to allergies. It’s worth getting a nutritional evaluation just to be sure. For now just try and avoid your trigger foods altogether.

There is a catch, however. Ironically we often crave our trigger foods or those foods to which we are most allergic! Here’s a quick tip if you find yourself dealing with an irresistible craving for that trigger cookie: eat some protein (especially important for sugar/ carb addicts) or a fresh piece of fruit, a vegetable, or drink lots of water.

Trigger situations and people can be trickier to identify. This is a skill that develops over time and with practice. Food addicts often use food as a way to suppress or divert from difficult feelings. So when you find yourself obsessing about that last slice of pie or can’t stop munching on the chips, see if you can back-track to what happened just before you started to obsess or feel out of control. This investigation can provide you with important clues about what feelings you might be using food to avoid.

For example: I had a client who binged every time anger came up for her. At first it was a week or more before she could link a binge to its’ trigger. Eventually she could recognize within a few hours what event and/or person had triggered her feelings of anger and consequent binge. When she was finally able to identify her anger more quickly and find constructive ways to give it voice in the moment, she found that the urge to binge disappeared.

2) Find ways to self-soothe.

For food addicts, food can be the primary way to self-soothe. Often this imprint was created long ago when, for instance mummy gave you a lollipop to stop you from crying over your hurt knee. But there are a million other ways to self-soothe: Taking a bath, going for a walk, calling a friend, listening to music, going for a drive and so on… Try creating your own ‘Top 10 soothers list’.

One crucial point: Create your list before going to your holiday events and take it with you. If you’ve thought about it beforehand and your list is as readily available to you as that box of chocolates, then maybe instead of eating half the box you’ll just eat one chocolate before going out for a breath of fresh air with your I pod and some of your favorite tunes. It takes a bit of consciousness to initially change old habits. Help yourself by taking your ‘Top10 soothers’ list with you whenever you go out. It really works and is much more fun than yet another holiday when you end up feeling down on yourself.

3) Keep your blood sugar stable.

Eat at least every 4 hours. In order to avoid a blood sugar crash or the fast/ feast cycle, space mealtimes and snacks throughout your day. Think of your meals as rocks helping you cross a river (i.e getting through your day). If you space the rocks too far apart you can slip and fall. However if the rocks are evenly spaced you can cross the river without getting wet.

Try eating 3-5 snacks/ meals a day with at least one of them containing protein. Keeping your blood sugar stable will help enormously to keep food compulsions at bay.

4) Avoid overly rigid rules around food.

Rigid rules around food will only make you more preoccupied with food. Expect to slip up. Don’t expect perfection. See if you can allow yourself the pleasure of food while staying connected with yourself and reconnecting with loved ones this holiday season. After all isn’t this the best present of all to yourself and others? Follow these 4 simple steps and see if it doesn’t make a difference…. Here’s to a truly happy holiday!

* The definition of a food addict is someone who either overeats or undereats for emotional reasons.

About the Author...

Ondina Nandine Hatvany, MFT is a licensed psychotherapist with practices in Mill Valley and San Francisco. She is also Director of the Eating Disorders program at Community Institute of Psychotherapy in San Rafael, CA. She works with food and weight issues by helping her clients develop a non-diet lifestyle and come home to their bodies. This means redefining the body from being the battleground or ‘shame container’ to becoming the place of grounding and connection with both the self and other. She works with clients to talk about their problems instead of trying to stuff or starve the problems out of existence. Ondina believes this is the first step toward empowerment and living a fully embodied life.

Last Update: 1/15/2009

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