Why are people are still acting as though nutritional perfection should be the focus of our festive season?
Christmas food isn’t just about your turkey roast 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 (in 2021, probably just with those you live with) as you celebrate the lead up to the big day. It’s the mince pies and mulled wine you have on Christmas eve as you reunite with family members.
Food is such a massive part of celebrating, bringing together friends and family members over warming meals or hearty drinks. After the two years we’ve had, sharing joyous meals is more important than ever. Many people didn’t get a chance to be with loved ones last year and this year has again left people with intense burnout that only quality time with friends and family can ease.
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? Or, that I should be swapping out my dad’s homemade pigs in blankets and crispy potatoes that I’ve waited two years for in favour of a healthier alternative?
I guess it’s not surprising, given that it happens every year. But a small part of me believed that in 2021 we would be past this kind of food rhetoric. Not only because we’ve had another 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… I’m being reminded how many calories are in the bottle of prosecco that I’m going to share with my mum. That “it takes 1,445 squats to burn off one serving of your favourite Christmas food”. 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. Even the National Trust got involved, encouraging us to visit their beautiful parks to ‘walk off the Christmas pudding’ when there are so many better reasons to go and explore the outside.
It’s not just brands – I’ve found myself in conversations with friends discussing how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they’ve already been this month or how they just can’t resist a Quality Street/a Baileys/a gingerbread man.
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. Essentially, the more you obsess of the idea that you’re not being ‘healthy’, the more unhealthy you’ll become.
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.
In a recent Instagram post, dietitian Renee McGregor has some helpful reminders for shutting out this noise during the festive period. “Food is more than just energy and fuel,” she writes. “It is an opportunity to connect with those you love. Try to take this time to focus not on what is being eaten, but what is being said, who is talking, and your relationship with them. Instead of zoning in on yourself and your food habits, allow yourself to give this time to the people you love.”
So, let me be the voice telling you to forget these stupid headlines that suggest the only effect of Christmas food is poor health. Instead, try to focus on the fact that you will also gain happiness, connection and memories after another 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 McGregor, personal trainer Lucy Mountain @lucymountain for anti-diet culture chat, as well as Emilia Thompson for reminders that our relationship with food is just as important as the nutrition of what we eat).
Most importantly, stop overthinking your health right now. I will enjoy ending a difficult 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.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).