It happens every holiday season. Pies, cookies, cakes, candy canes, gingerbread houses, failed recipes that still resulted in you licking the spatula when the dough may or may not have just been butter, sugar, and raw eggs–there’s a ton of delicious food hidden around the house in Tupperware containers like a breadcrumb trail to diabetes.
Separating eating from the joy of the holiday season is challenging, because a lot of us have some very specific positive memories about the holiday baking from when we were still leaving milk and cookies out for Santa. I come from a cookie household; every holiday season my mom would make chocolate chip cookies and sugar cookies. When she made the chocolate chip cookies, she’d give me my own little bowl of the semi-sweet chips, and while she gave everything a final stir with the designated wooden cookie spoon, I’d meticulously lick both of the beaters clean. In hindsight, these may have been strategies to keep me away from dipping into the dough for a few minutes rather than privileges. Have you ever noticed that moms make the best cookie dough? I’ve made numerous batches of cookies using the same recipe my mom uses, but the cookie dough never turns out as creamy and perfect as when she does it. I’m convinced that becoming a mother ups a woman’s cookie dough game.
As for the sugar cookies, they had to be rolled red and green sugars, and it was my responsibility to keep the bowls filled with enough sugar to coat the tiny balls of dough. Sometimes I’d get creative and roll a cookie in both the red and green sugars, and my mom would pat my head and feign wonder at my astonishing creativity. Before the first batch of cookies was done, she would tear a long sheet of paper towels and lay it across the length of our kitchen table. In the later years, I’d play defense in an effort to keep my dog Milly from stealing all the cookies.
I have so many happy holiday memories of family, togetherness, gifts, but most of all, eating. With so many food preparation traditions, it’s impossible not to get a little nostalgic for when the counter felt a lot taller than it does now and recalling a time when cracking two eggs gave you a profound sense of accomplishment. As a kid, watching my mom transform a bunch of carefully measured, yet seemingly random, ingredients into something delicious was like seeing a magic show in the kitchen. Maybe none of that should compel me to eat more, but it does. I think that’s true for a lot of us. We’re eating cookies (cakes, etc.), but we’re also consuming memories in the most tangible way we know how.
And so we fill our plates to celebrate, to relax, and to remember, and we feel the need to justify it.
“With all the gift wrapping I endured, I deserve this entire pie!”
“I always gain weight during the holiday season–no use fighting it.”
“I’ll work it all off in January… I’ll even make resolution.”
Can I tell you something–something that you shouldn’t take lightly coming from someone who is admittedly an emotional eater and still managed to lose 120 pounds without cleansing, teatoxing, or bidding farewell to carbs? You can (and maybe should) eat some extra goodies during the holidays, because even if you successful abstain from all the cookies, you will find an excuse to spite eat later on, and it might be worse than what you would’ve eaten in Santa’s honor. What’s spite eating? It’s when you eat a bunch of garbage to get revenge on yourself because you regret not eating something else (i.e. the seasonal goodies).
Even though it’s weird to tie food to your emotions, and it has the potential to lead to overeating and/or weight gain if you’re not completely honest with yourself about it, I think it’s a lot more common this time of year than we realize. The holidays bring up a lot of stuff; they can be stressful whether it’s because of in-laws or your shopping budget, and turning to the sugar cookies your mom used to make is probably better than drinking an entire bottle of wine or Scrooging and Grinching all over someone’s holiday spirit. Fitness gurus might advise, “Going to the gym will make you feel better! Don’t let holiday eating ruin your routine!” Well, yeah, I can totally confirm that 30 minutes of cardio will get those endorphins going, but what “routine” are you ruining by eating an extra cookie? Living your life?
Look, I’m not advocating you eat your way into a merry Christmas, but as long as you’re honest and aware of what you’re eating and why, you’ll be in a good position to balance your holiday food intake with your normal diet and physical activity. We shouldn’t use the holidays as an excuse to gain weight just because it’s trendy to bond over our egg nog and collective body shame this time of year, but we need to stop the holiday plate hate, too. No one should live in fear or self-loathing because some gingerbread men got the best of him or her. Most importantly, we need to stop basing all our eating decisions on a New Year’s Resolution to get in great shape by summer. When it comes to taking care of your body, future promising is possibly the worst thing you can do (besides eating raw butter), because there are no guarantees besides your good intentions, and I hate to be the one to tell you this, but those aren’t always enough to motivate you.
Take one day at a time, and keep everything in perspective. If you feel like eating all the cookies, ask yourself why that is and decide your portions from there. Don’t think of eating only in terms of what you’ll need to do on the treadmill to erase those calories. And please please please, don’t opt out of holiday traditions because you can’t trust yourself around brown sugar (this one’s mostly for me, shout-out to brown sugar).
If you can be honest about your eating, you’ll be able get through the holidays enjoying food and making memories without sabotaging your health or fitness goals. I promise.