The holidays, for me, are the hardest time of the year to be healthy.
Last year at this time, I was at a Christmas party where a pile of those fantastically buttery delicious shortbread cookies sat in the middle of the buffet table.
I had been half-heartedly gluten free after a food sensitivity test had come back negative for gluten. However, it was also positive for dairy and eggs and sugar – all the things normally present in large quantities in delicious buttery shortbread. The cookies and I had a stare-off for a while as I circulated, aware all the while of their constant, alluring presence. Then, seemingly without any conscious decision on my part, I walked over and ate one.
I ate one more. I ate another. I ate eight after that. It was as if I had come out of an intense period of cookie starvation, and my body was telling me how much I needed that cookie. With every one I ate, I was compelled to eat another one, on and on until the end of the night.
That’s my memory from that party last year. Isn’t that sad? It upsets me a little to think that I had more of an interaction with the cookies than with my friends. Ultimately, that night was the reason I decided to start my 2017 with a January Whole30 and never look back.
I’m proud to say that I have not had many moments like that one this year. I’m proud because it took a lot of hard work. I had to learn a lot about myself. I had to consciously become aware of my body, my feelings, my needs in each moment. I had to concede that caffeine makes my stomach hurt and sugar makes me depressed, even though I didn’t want to believe it. The whole year has been an exercise in humility and unlearning lifelong patterns. I’m creating an intentional new relationship with food, and sometimes it sucks and it’s hard.
Fast-forward to now, a new holiday season. I got just as much chocolate and just as many delicious homemade treats from my students as last year. I’m still attending holiday parties. And the cookies are calling to me.
One of the things I’ve learned this year is that deprivation is never healthy. Most fad diets, including programs like the whole30, restrict the food that you eat so drastically that it requires intense planning and forethought to follow them. Whole30 is big on the idea that you only do the program for 30 days. For a short period of time, the black and white rules make it easier to make healthy choices without reaching decision fatigue. But then what?
Back to the idea of deprivation: if I went around this holiday season saying to myself “I can’t have this,” “I can’t have that,” “sorry, kids, I can’t accept that gift because I won’t be able to resist having chocolate in my room and will eat it all in one sitting,” I would be miserable throughout the holidays. Refusing treats is sometimes refusing people’s love.
So I’ve told myself to relax. I’ve told myself that I can have a treat if I want it, but I have to really want it. I can have a chocolate on the last day of school before winter break in silent celebration of surviving a crazy quarter of work and school and personal transformation.
I’m not trapped in oscillation between the polar extremes of I can’t – I have to, like I was with those cookies.
In fact, after working so hard on my relationship with food this year, I’m more confident with treats. I know that I’ll have some if I want it, and I know that I’ll stop when it doesn’t taste or feel good. I might make some choices I regret, but I know that the choices I make tomorrow can be different.
Most of all, I know I have choices. I’m not compelled, pulled, or unable to resist the temptation of a shortbread cookie. They’re cookies, and I can have one if I want, and I know how it will make me feel. If it’s worth it, then I go for it. If it’s not, I don’t.
It’s kind of like food freedom.
Melissa Hartwig says it best.
Food freedom also means that food is fun again. It means you feel free to play around with how much, how often, and in what quantity you can enjoy your favorite wine, a slice of birthday cake, or mom’s famous lasagna while still looking and feeling exactly as awesome as you want. You don’t obsess. You don’t get anxious. You aren’t stressed. You don’t restrict needlessly, or binge heedlessly. You make conscious, deliberate decisions around food, and sometimes you say yes, and sometimes you say no, and both are totally okay because you chose it.
You feel like you could do this for the rest of your life.
Food freedom doesn’t mean that you’re a perfect eater, however. It doesn’t mean you always make the “right” decision. It doesn’t mean you always stay on track, and never fall back into old habits. Food freedom means that when you fall off course, you don’t let it ruin your day (or your week), physically or emotionally. It means you always have a plan for returning to a place of healthy balance, gracefully. It means you recognize that life happens, but every “slip” is actually a learning experience, and your food freedom plan is that much more robust for these experiences.
Food freedom demands that you’re in this for the long haul. There is no hack for food freedom; no shortcut or quick fix. It’s you, working my 3-step program, day in and day out, every single day. There are no weeks off. There is no “Well, I’m on vacation, so I’m just not going to think about it.” You can’t disconnect from your body or your relationship with food when things get hard. Food freedom demands more attention than that.
Surviving the holidays is just like surviving every day of the rest of my life. It’s all about making conscious choices and paying attention to how I feel.
And even though, in my own words, “it sucks,” and “it’s hard,” it’s also incredibly worth it.
My life is different. I am awake, I am conscious, and I am managing my autoimmune disease. I have energy, I feel alive, and I feel free. It may be hard to believe that this all came from my food choices.
Really, it only started there, and it slowly spread to the rest of my life.