Holiday Eating and Fear of Weight Gain

Dinner partyThanksgiving is a holiday for cultivating gratitude for all the good in our lives. It’s also an opportunity to participate in a ritual of breaking bread with loved ones, a celebration of our connection to others, sharing the plentiful food that we are fortunate enough to have.

Yet as Thanksgiving approached, several of my clients who see me for help with their eating-related problems expressed apprehension about the upcoming holiday. Their worries focused mainly on the plethora of food they anticipated would be at the meal, and some described family gatherings at which food was around at all times.

They feared they would “lose control,” which meant eating too much – for them, a terrifying thought. Although Thanksgiving is an occasion at which overeating is the norm, the idea strikes fear in the hearts of people who struggle with eating and body issues. Many of these people spend copious amounts of mental and emotional energy obsessing about what they have eaten, what they will eat, how much they’re exercised, and what their bodies look like. They feel anxious at the prospect of gaining weight, anxious if they think they had too much to eat, anxious if they think they’ve not exercised enough. Conversely, eating according to their ideas about the right amount of food reduces their anxiety. Exercising more or harder reduces their anxiety. Getting on the scale and seeing a lower number reduces their anxiety. Throwing food back up reduces their anxiety.

So a day like Thanksgiving, a time that is supposed to be about sharing loving connection with others and expressing gratitude for all the good we have, becomes instead a holiday much scarier than Halloween.

For a woman (the vast majority of the people who see me for help with these issues are women, so for the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to women) who fears gaining weight so intensely, weight gain means becoming fat, and fat equals being lazy, unproductive, worthless, unlovable and these things ultimately mean being all alone. She often believes that her worth or goodness or loveable-ness is dependent on controlling the size and shape of her body.  She believes that such qualities aren’t inherent, but rather are determined by the number on the scale. Thus, Thanksgiving represents a day that can undo her.

In many families, food is a means of conveying love. For someone vulnerable to developing disordered eating patterns, growing up in such a family can contribute to a conflicted relationship with food and body. The conundrum is this: If food is love, then I need to eat to feel loved, yet if I need to be thin in order to be loved or wanted or respected, then I can’t eat too much.

So Thanksgiving presents a dilemma. Some figure out ways to, no pun intended, “have their cake and eat it too.” They eat a tremendous amount of food on Thanksgiving Day, and secretly vomit it back up. Or they exercise excessively before and after. Others simply deny themselves much food, eating far less than they actually need. Regardless of the strategy, their focus is on controlling the amount of calories consumed and reducing their anxiety.

I also work with people whose eating difficulties manifest in binge eating and compulsive overeating, who have been told in weight-loss programs that they must view food simply as fuel, and nothing more. They’ve come to believe that getting pleasure from food is wrong. They see Thanksgiving as an obstacle to be strategically overcome, planning their intake for the meal ahead according to strict guidelines. They, like their counterparts whose eating problems manifest in restricting or compensating for their food intake, see getting through Thanksgiving having eaten according to plan as success.

Either way, they miss out on the warmth and ease of a day sharing good food with good people, giving thanks. They miss out on the joy of consuming food lovingly prepared in the company of those close to them.  Fear of what they’ll lose supersedes gratitude for what they have.

The holiday season is supposed to be about love, not fear. At the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, rituals are performed to stop the sun from abandoning the peoples of the earth, to bring the light back. As we move ahead into the holidays, may fear of the dark be outdone by the power of light: that light within each of us, so those of us who struggle with eating and with our bodies might see and our own innate worth and goodness, which can’t be earned by controlling or lost by losing control over our eating or our bodies.  Instead of fearing having too much so much that we don’t allow ourselves enough, may we know we deserve all that we need and be grateful that we have plenty.

© Copyright 2011 by Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, CEDS, therapist in Durham, North Carolina. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • marta

    marta

    December 7th, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    I too have this fear. I work in an office where other doctors and patienta pay us in gratitude with food. For Thanksgiving to Christmas there are all kinds of goodies forever being delivered. And it is so hard to say no to them even when I want to because there is always constant pressure from my co workers to try this and that. Even when my eating gets off track I at least try to keep to my regular exercise routine. But even then it is hard not to dwell on the pounds that I have to be gaining. Sometimes it really does take all of the joy out of the holidays for me.

  • Gladys

    Gladys

    December 8th, 2011 at 5:17 AM

    I refuse to give up the joy of congregating and eating together just for the fear of gaining weight. How shallow is that.

  • Xavier

    Xavier

    December 8th, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    As a male with these fears I just want to say aloud that it is not only females who feel this sort of pressure around the holidays. The stress levels and anxiety that I have about eating too much this time of year simply devour me at times, so much so that there have been times when I have turned down holiday invites just because I know that there will be food there that I do not need to eat. I hate that I have these feelings, and I have tried to manage them a little better over the years but having once been fat and still having that fear of becoming obese again it is difficult to contain those demons at times. I hope to one day get through my holidays at peace with food, but for now it is what it is.

  • Georgia

    Georgia

    December 9th, 2011 at 4:47 AM

    For just one day or one week, you have to sometimes let it go.
    This is the time of year to be grateful, joyful.

  • rene

    rene

    December 9th, 2011 at 11:44 PM

    hard to understand people who obsess over such things.eat right and exercise right.that is staying HEALTHY,not just when the scales show a smaller number!

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    January 9th, 2012 at 7:38 PM

    Everyone,

    Thank you for your comments! I apologize for my delay in writing back– the holidays were very busy for me and I am getting caught up.

    Rene, I agree: the motivating force should be health, not weight, shape or size.

    Georgia, yes, this is the time of year to be grateful, and fear can overshadow gratitude. In this case, fear of food and fat. It’s not that food and fat aren’t problems to be addressed, it’s that fear of them makes things much worse.

    Xavier and Marta, it seems that this fear takes the joy out of the holidays, making offices and parties like mine fields that you navigate or avoid, rather than places and occasions where you share the holiday spirit with others. I hope you can develop loving, trusting relationships with your bodies and your selves, so that you can enjoy holiday events that involve treats.

    Gladys, I’m glad you’re not letting the fear stop you! And I’ll add that although these issues can appear shallow, they’re actually quite “deep,” that is, they are symptoms of complicated internal conflicts that often require professional help.

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