When we think of Thanksgiving, a lot of great food surely comes to mind. It’s a day defined by its menu and the people you celebrate with. It’s a way of reflecting on all you have to be thankful for. What better way to do that than to share a delicious meal with the people you love? It’s something humans have been doing for as long as they’ve existed. However, in our society where diet culture is as American as Thanksgiving itself, the thought of the holiday quickly evokes anxiety and fear in many. Will I “overeat” or indulge in the foods I love that are “bad” for me? 

When Thanksgiving and the holiday season roll around, it’s quite common for people to experience heightened anxiety around food and body image. This anxiety is normal for anyone given our diet-obsessed society and the messages that thinness is superior and all-curing, but it can become especially unbearable for those recovering from eating disorders — not to mention those currently struggling with their own. I’m among the former group and I can barely remember the last time I celebrated a Thanksgiving free of eating disorder thoughts. But I’m determined to make this Thanksgiving the first of many ED-free holidays. 

Still, it’s immensely difficult to fully disassociate from diet culture beliefs and disordered behaviors. We are all members of various groups, from our family to our campus community, and we don’t exist in our own little bubble. We’re going to have contact with people who outright express problematic beliefs about food and body. For many of you reading, I’m sure you can think of a family member who is always voicing discontent with their body, praising others inhabiting a body they find “better” and/or hopping on the bandwagon of fad diets.

By no means do I want to patronize or blame these people. In my case, they’re my family, and I love them. They’ve simply been raised in a culture that prioritizes aesthetics before true health, while also skewing the definition of health to deceive people into believing they are being healthy by shrinking their body. Their worries around the holiday, of “overeating” and what that might do to their bodies, are understandable. They’ve been taught that “bad” foods are to be avoided, but not that rigid, prolonged restriction of food and chronic undereating leads to the “binge” they fear. The feelings of guilt and shame that ensue in the aftermath, which are also conditioned beliefs, lead them to recommit to a new restricted eating plan, leaving the diet industry with a reliable clientele. 

For those in the eating disorder community, the added worry is then having to listen to our family and friends blatantly voice their worries about weight and engage in diet culture talk. That’s in addition to already having to deal with an eating disorder, which is likely raging on a day like Thanksgiving. Hearing diet culture talk can be especially difficult if one is just starting out in their recovery. It’s a prominent trigger, and with triggers all around us, it becomes necessary to cope with them. 

Diet culture has sucked the joy out of Thanksgiving and the holiday season for many. It’s no surprise that this is also the season where talk of weight loss and new diets surge, only to fail a month or so into the new year because they are largely unsustainable. The worst part is that when they fail, as they are designed to, the fault is attributed to the individual and weight cycling may ensue. The body’s biological instinct is to fiercely hold onto weight in preparation for the next famine — the next diet. It’s time to forgo all this toxic thought around food and our bodies this year, because self-inflicted mental restriction around the holidays does more harm than good. 

In fact, it’s this restriction that leads people toward a “binge” mentality. In recent years, we’ve been scared by news reports of how many calories the average American consumes on Thanksgiving. But this scare tactic only lines the pockets of the diet industry further. Our hunger levels and energy needs vary day-to-day, and days when we eat more than we intended or wanted to are normal, as are days when we have less of an appetite and eat less. It’s OK to let your body run its course and balance out. You may find yourself drawn to a lot of food on Thanksgiving Day, and the best thing to do is follow the urges. Maybe, the next day you’ll find you have much less of an appetite. Maybe not, and it’s back to a regular day of eating.

Either way, it is restriction that makes one feel more out of control around food and leads to “overeating,”  physically and mentally. The “last supper” mentality around Thanksgiving is what ignites an episode of uncontrollable overeating, but I don’t want to vilify “overeating.” As humans, there are going to be days where we overeat and days where we undereat and that is completely normal, assuming it is done without intentional restriction. When it is, it’s problematic because it’s then a compulsive behavior that arose in response to the mental and/or physical restriction the individual inflicted upon themselves. 

Ever wonder why we do this? Why do we set out with a restrictive mindset, determined not to eat “X” or “too much” on Thanksgiving Day? It can’t just be because we’re trying to be “healthy” — even using the word to justify restriction is a skewed vision of health. If that were the case, we’d focus on getting a substantial amount of nutrients via food, since, as too often is forgotten, calories are life-sustaining and not meant to be avoided. Beyond physical health, we’d focus on our mental and emotional well-being.

You know you’re going to “break your rules” because they’re too rigid, so don’t create them in the first place. And there’s no use in berating yourself when you do. It’s not serving any purpose beyond reinforcing diet culture messages that you’re lacking in willpower and that food — literally a life-sustaining substance — is something to feel guilty about. 

Still, rejecting a diet-culture-tainted mindset is easier said than done. There are various tips out there on how to go about this, as well as some that are specific to Thanksgiving and the eating disorder community. Most of them are in some way or another rooted in distractions and/or self-talk. These are great tips and can be highly effective, but let’s take it further to self-questioning. Where and when did I learn that Thanksgiving food is “bad”? What prize is to be had if you eat the least? Who taught me to feel guilty for feeling full? 

You’ll definitely have your work cut out for you, as will I. It’s no easy feat to change long-ingrained beliefs. For those in eating disorder recovery specifically, this neural rewiring is usually the last bit of the process we tackle, and the most difficult. 

If you really want to “be good” this year, don’t deprive yourself and enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner. There’s no prize for eating the least. If anything, you may become more food-focused, and that just leads down a tumultuous path of unnecessary anxiety and a strained relationship to food and your body. Have the dessert you want and move on. It’s much healthier. 

Nyla Booras can be reached at nbooras@umich.edu

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