Lessons On Food Guilt During The Holidays

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In light of the upcoming holiday season (and holiday foods), I want to share some “diet/food” insights I’ve learned. I realize “dieting” can be a loaded term, but I’m not here to recommend a diet plan. What I want to do is talk about is my relationship with food and some changes in perspective I’ve had.

I’m lucky to have been born with a decently reliable metabolism. It takes a long time for me to gain or lose weight, and when I lose or gain weight, it’s never more than 5-10 pounds. However, that is not the issue here. Whatever your body type/metabolism is, your weight is more than just a physical state. Even though my weight was relatively inert, I still felt guilty eating “unhealthy” foods (pastries, chips, etc.). I went to the gym regularly, but I had to muster up the self-discipline to do it. At some point, I realized I couldn’t keep up that kind of effortful food-lifestyle. As a student with lots of free time and gym access, I was fine – but it wasn’t sustainable. I went from 110 lb (before college) to 125 lb, to 110 lb, to 120 lb, back to 110 lb, up to 115 lb, and now finally down to a constant 108-112 lb range now. The physical difference was pretty insignificant; what is significant is how I learned to perceive food. These are the top three mistakes that I made (or insights gleaned, if you prefer your glass half-full).

1. Portion control of snacks and desserts.

For me, this is the key to low-effort maintenance of my target weight. Before, I would always focus on what high-volume, low-calorie alternative there is to potato chips, cookies, etc. For snacking, I would pick a large bowl of raw veggies over 10 potato chips (because who can just eat 10?). While that worked for a while, I would inevitably give in and binge on “unhealthy” foods at some later point (accompanied by huge food-guilt). And since I never learned to portion control, my weight would yo-yo. Now I eat whatever I want, but just not too much of it (honestly 1/2 a donut tastes about the same as 1 donut, but feels much better).

2. Don’t go on a “diet.”

I knew the conventional wisdom that a “diet” is really a change in lifestyle, but I didn’t fully comprehend the concept. I think most people probably experience the same thing, where they view the diet as semi-permanent. I would tell myself: “Okay, for the next month, I’ll exercise every day and cut out sweets/whatever, and after I reach my target weight I can have all those unhealthy things again in moderation.” That definitely did not work for me. I think a sustainable “diet” is one that you can be on for the rest of your life and not be dissatisfied. Anything less permanent may work in terms of physical weight, but, at least for me, took too much mental effort to sustain.

3. Exercise is not compensatory.

Before, I exercised mainly because it would burn excess calories. If I ate too much one day, I would do an extra hour of cardio. If I was having a good food week, there was less pressure to go to the gym. Exercise was inextricably tied to my food intake – which was the wrong mentality! Since I viewed exercise as compensatory (or even punishment) with regards to food, going to the gym was always a chore! It always took self-discipline and willpower, which on some days I just didn’t have. But once I stopped viewing exercise through a lens of food-guilt, I’ve come to value it for its independent benefits (e.g. better skin, better sleep, more energy). Now, I go almost every morning (as opposed to going at night like I used to) because it makes me more energetic throughout the day.

There was definitely a learning curve when it came to sustainable healthy eating for me. I honestly think a lot of girls have major issues with food but nobody really addresses it in the right way – everyone focuses on the issue of self-image. Like “Oh, if you resolve your self-image issues (i.e. accept that big is beautiful, focus on inner beauty) then your eating disorder will go away.” Right, I’ll just learn to ignore the size 0 standard of beauty staring back at me on every magazine cover and catwalk. Between the overabundance of calorie-rich food marketed to us and the “beautiful”, thin women plastered on every billboard, how the hell is one supposed to have a healthy relationship with food? Seriously that dichotomy is such a mind-fuck, you almost need an eating disorder to cope with it. In Korea/Hong Kong/Asian culture, where the ideal is super skinny with no muscle, there is pretty much no discussion about food choices; actresses/models just pretend like they have some magical metabolism while, in reality, they eat very little.

I think it’s unrealistic to expect young women (even older women) to “get over” their self-image issues in such an image-conscious society (it’s like asking for abstinence from teenagers instead of teaching them about condoms). Instead of just having campaigns aimed at “correcting” self-image issues, we should also start educating people about making food choices in a modern society characterized by sedentary jobs and a growing surplus of unhealthy food choices. But that would mean lower profits/higher costs for the food industry, so I imagine their lobbyists would try to stop that from happening.

Still, some food for thought for the holidays. TC Mark

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