How to Navigate Food Anxiety this Holiday Season

Check out three tips to help ease your food anxiety during this festive season.

How to Navigate Food Anxiety this Holiday Season (Getty Images)

It’s important to note that food anxiety as we will be defining it here is not the same as an eating disorder, though both may occur in conjunction with the other. This article will look at food anxiety as a general phenomenon, without the wider context of eating disorders. If you believe you might be experiencing disordered eating, please reach out to the Eating Disorders Helpline.

As we near the end of the year, many friend groups in my circle have begun to echo the same phrase: I’m not looking forward to the holidays. There are a lot of reasons why, starting and often ending with the expectation of trekking home. Traveling, seeing family, and the strain of it all on your finances can be a lot — especially for those of us in the 18-24 range.

There’s one holiday stressor, though, that might fly under the radar for a lot of people. It’s easy to overlook if you don’t experience it, and difficult to overlook if you do. The term we’ll use for it is “food anxiety.”

There’s a lot of different literature out there on food anxiety, but for our purposes here we’ll use this definition from VeryWellFit: “Food anxiety occurs when strong nervousness or scared feelings are triggered by the presence of any food, certain foods, or in specific situations.”

Note: This is not a medical definition, and that this definition should not be used for diagnostic purposes.

Food anxiety is something we all may experience to differing degrees. 

It can look like nervousness to eat in front of others, stress surrounding portion sizes, aversion to certain types of foods, fear of ridicule surrounding choice of food, etc. Food anxiety could be heightened around the holidays for a variety of reasons, but a big one is that the holidays are one of the few times a year where you’re expected to eat a variety of indulgent dishes around a variety of people, often family and friends. The pressure to eat happily and healthily also weighs heavy on the holiday season — after all, how can you enjoy pumpkin praline if you’re counting calories in your head?

So, it’s especially important around this time of year to look at the tools we have to reduce food anxiety, or at least learn ways to manage it. And remember, no matter what, that you’re not alone in experiencing food anxiety.

Eat with intention

A lot of individuals find that taking up either Mindful or Intuitive eating practices can help reduce food anxiety. While Mindful eating focuses more on staying present with your meal and noticing aspects of the food you’re consuming, Intuitive eating emphasizes connecting with your body’s actual needs/wants and fulfilling them accordingly. Food Insight does a great job of illustrating each approach.

Think about how you’re talking to yourself

Sometimes, awareness is the first step. Are you framing food in inherently positive and negative lights? Do you think worse of yourself when you have fast food than when you cook at home? Part of your food anxiety might stem from your own beliefs about food and self-worth. If you feel that you are speaking negatively about yourself in relation to food, it might be a good idea to talk to a counselor. VeryWellFit provides more insight into how you can combat food-related negative self-talk.

Gauge your own limits, and respect them

A lot of holiday-related food anxiety has to do with other people’s perceived or actual reactions to your relationship to food. Will a parent comment on your weight? Will an aunt or uncle tell you to lay off the mashed potatoes? If you’ve received these kinds of comments before, it might be especially difficult to re-enter the arena where you’re expected to shrink yourself to fit in.

Although this might seem counterintuitive, or even abrasive, it’s incredibly important to remember that even at the holidays you are your own person. If someone makes you uncomfortable, you can (and should!) vocalize it. You can leave. Oftentimes, simply playing dumb can go a long way. Speaking from personal experience, phrases like, I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean. Can you explain it to me? works wonders. It might sound and feel stilted, but it gets the job done. If someone is making you uncomfortable, put the onus back on them to explain why it’s okay for them to do so.

Most importantly, know when you’re done. Don’t push yourself past your limits trying to get others to understand how and why they’ve hurt you. Take a breather when you need it. Take a walk. If you need to, leave. Do what you’re able to, challenge yourself where you can, and always, always, always prioritize your own wellbeing.

The holidays can be a messy time, physically, mentally and emotionally. Anxiety, food-related or otherwise, rarely makes things easier. However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have options. You have agency, and you deserve to feel valued. It’s okay to stand up for yourself.

A final word of wisdom for the food-anxious among us: you’re not weird. You’re actually very normal. Food anxiety is more common than you’d think. Now, good luck out there this holiday season, here’s to the flight home!

Riley Martinez is a freelance writer located in San Diego. She is a graduate of San Diego State University.

Edited by NaTyshca Pickettt

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