“Please stop telling me how much exercise it takes to burn off my Christmas food”

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After the year we’ve had, the calories in your festive food should be the least of our worries. Yet people are still talking about how to exercise away the calories we eat…

Christmas food isn’t just about your turkey roast at 3pm on 25 December. It’s also about savouring the too-sweet chocolate from your advent calendar every morning of the month. It’s the chink of champagne glasses (or, in 2020, paper cups of mulled wine at outdoor events) as we celebrate the lead up to the big day. It’s the supermarket stuffing sandwich or awful Christmas flavoured crisps you have the next day to ease your hangover. 

Food is such a massive part of celebrating, bringing together friends and family members over warming meals or hearty drinks. After the year we’ve had, sharing joyous meals is more important than ever. I haven’t savoured my mum’s roast dinners or Victoria sponges all year, so I’m particularly thankful that I will be diving headfirst into her lovingly stewed Christmas pudding and homemade cranberry sauce over a glass of Prosecco with her. And while I can’t be with my dad this year, I’ll be taking his recipe for the perfect Christmas cocktails and Boxing Day bubble and squeak to feel a little more at home without him.  

So, please tell me why I am opening my inbox and social media feeds to constant reminders that doing all of these things will mean pumping X number of calories into my body? I guess it’s not surprising, given that it happens every year. But a small part of me believed that in 2020 we would be past this kind of food rhetoric. Not only because we’ve had a year of restriction – from our work and social lives to our holidays and memories. But also because the conversation around food neutrality, body acceptance and anti-diet movement is more mainstream than ever.

And yet… the news that “it takes 1,445 squats to burn off one serving of your favourite Christmas food” arrived in my inbox last week. On my explore feed on Instagram, an influencer informed me that I should be ‘calorie aware’, listing all Christmas foods from After Eights to an orange in order of caloric value. I have found myself in conversations with people discussing how much weight they think they’ll put on over the festive period, how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they’ve already been this month or how they just can’t resist a Quality Street/a Bailey’s/a gingerbread man.  

Christmas food and drink
"I’m particularly thankful that I will be diving headfirst into my mum's lovingly stewed Christmas pudding and homemade cranberry sauce over a glass of Prosecco."

Food shame is, of course, not just reserved for Christmas – it constantly surrounds us every day in fatphobic conversations, advertisements and even professional healthcare advice that (wrongly) reiterates that smaller is better and weight gain is bad. Yet there is something about the festive period that makes it so much more difficult to be around. 

We know that for those with an eating disorder, the festive period is one of the hardest times to navigate foods. But even for those without mental health issues, focusing on everything we stand to gain or how much our memory-making meals will impact our bodies has a huge impact: multiple studies show that food restriction leads to binging and that excessive calorie counting is symptomatic of disordered eating and even eating disorders. 

Not to mention the fact that imposing the idea that a few meals will drastically change your fitness levels or cause a negative impact on your health is ludicrous and, quite frankly, just bad science. Plus, framing exercise as something we do to earn or burn off calories negates the huge mental, physical and social impact of workouts. 

As someone who is perceived to be slim, I am aware of the privilege of my body type. Yet, reading headline after headline in emails and Instagram posts telling me how I need to ‘undo’ all the joyous food I’ve eaten really takes it’s toll.

“You, the individual, are absolutely not to blame for the way you’ve been made to think or feel about food and diets. It’s a chaotic, jumbly world out there,” reminds a post on the London Centre for Intuitive Eating instagram, a non-diet nutrition service run by Strong Women Collective member Laura Thomas PhD. The anti-diet advent calender on the account is a great starting point to neutralise the food police who try to make you feel bad about celebrating with delicious food. “Food is fuel AND it serves other purposes. Food is fun, enjoyment, privilege, connection, tradition, celebration, nostalgia, culture, comfort… to be enjoyed!” reads another poignant post.

So, let me be the voice telling you to forget these stupid headlines that suggest the only effect of Christmas food is weight gain. Instead, try to focus on the fact that you will also gain happiness, connection and memories in a year that has significantly lacked all of those things. And learn to accept that our bodies changing as the result of being back together with loved ones is really not a negative thing. 

That’s easier said than done, of course, so I would suggest curating a healthier feed on your social channels (I recommend following Laura and personal trainer Lucy Mountain @lucymountain for anti-diet culture chat, as well as Kimberley Wilson aka @foodandpsych for regular reminders of how food is so much more than just fuel). 

But I will enjoy ending a horrid year in the best way my family knows how – eating and drinking together. I’m not even going to feel guilty for how much I love Snowball cocktails, despite the fact that I understand that Advocaat and lemonade is just so gross – and yet so good.

If you are worried about your relationship with food, you can get help from eating disorder charity Beat at beateatingdisorders.org.uk. If the festive period is causing you particular worry, visit their Support at Christmas section at beateatingdisorders.org.uk/christmas

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