Why The Holidays Are So Challenging For People Who Have Issues With Food


Like so many people, I have food issues, which tend to spring to the forefront of my life around the holidays. That’s not exactly a revolutionary statement in a country where the Standard American Diet (SAD) leads to obesity and obesity-related illnesses in children and adults alike. We, as a nation, have food issues, not just around the holidays. But given how food-centric our celebrations tend to be, this is certainly the time of year for triggering any and all latent difficult relationships with food. But I’m not here to make sweeping declarations about the size of our national waistline, so instead I’ll share some personal stuff with you.

At the time of writing, I am five feet two inches tall and approximately 170 lbs. I wear anything from a size 10 to a size 14 in various American clothing stores. I have 34G boobs (fun!) and wide hips that sometimes cause me to bump into things accidentally. In a comprehensive physical fitness and nutrition assessment earlier this year, I was found to be “overfat”—in other words, I was found to have too much fat in proportion to the other stuff that makes up my body. I am a bit hypoglycemic (but not really bad). I have poor circulation in my hands and feet (though I’m not sure this has much to do with anything). Aside from walking my dog or walking around NYC, I do not work out. I was always bad at sports, and I guess I still feel like the uncoordinated kid in gym class.

I share this information not because I assume you are bigger or smaller than me; It's not because I want to bodyshame you or me or anyone we know or don’t know; and not because I think it makes me a better or worse person for being honest with you about this information. I share it with you because I think it is important context for what I am about to say.

I come from a family that has suffered in various ways as a result of the Standard American Diet, and, what’s more, the Standard Italian-American Diet. Note that I didn’t say Standard Italian Diet, which I imagine to be some gorgeous combination of extra-virgin olive oil and fresh fish and tomatoes. I said Standard Italian-American Diet, which is loaded with things like: high-sodium, high-sugar sauces, pasta, cookies, cakes, and multi-course meals, all meant to represent love incarnate. In our culture, you eat until your plate is clean, and then you ask for more, because that’s how you show the cook you care. Don’t have one helping of pasta; have two. Have three, actually, if you really want to show her how much you love her. That’s after the antipasto course, and the salad course, and probably before the meat course, and certainly before the dessert and the coffee and maybe, just maybe, the after-dinner alcohol. Did I mention the wine with the meal? I think I forgot that part. There's also wine with the meal, you guys.

Maybe you can relate to this. I don’t think it’s just an Italian-American thing.

I grew up believing that a meal was not truly enjoyed until one felt vaguely sick or at least completely exhausted after eating it. No one told me this outright; it’s just something I came to believe through exposure. It’s something I absorbed like a carpet absorbs cat urine. Food was not meant to energize and nurture. Food was meant to anesthetize and soothe. I do not blame anyone in my family for this, to be clear. It is the legacy we inherited, both from our actual ancestors and our American popular culture. I don’t blame our ancestors and I don’t blame the folks who brought us the Standard American Diet. I don’t blame anybody. It is just the way things are, and the way things have been.

I have seen people in my family suffer the ugly reality of what a poor diet combined with a sedentary lifestyle can create. I speak not of low self-esteem or poor body image, but rather of very real health concerns that could have been avoided or alleviated entirely by better diet and exercise. Terrible things. Debilitating things. Painful things.

I tell you all this so you know that when I say I have food issues and wish to lose weight, it is not because I think I am ugly or fat or unsexy or unattractive or gross in any way. It is not because I want to fit into a bikini (I wear one anyway), or a size [fill in the blank] or because I want to land a husband, a modeling contract, or a better self-image.

I tell you this so you know that what I want is to live, and live well.

Along with our history of obesity on one side, both sides of my family have a documented history of mental illness reaching back at least three generations. Severe depression, anxiety, addiction, bipolar disorder, and more—it’s all there, if you’re willing to comb through the stories and medical records. For me, these things became directly tied to food, a connection I know I'm not even remotely alone in both creating for myself, and being taught by others.

Food can soothe anxiety. Food can soothe depression. Food can soothe repetitive thoughts, obsessive thoughts, thoughts of hurting oneself. The lack of food can also do this. I know because I have used food and deliberately not used food in order to deal with these issues. Many years ago, I worked out the formula that food equals energy, which equals life. When I did not want life, I did not want energy, and so I did not take in food. For me, depression has always meant a lack of food. It gives new meaning to the phrase “fat and happy.”

So here I am, 34 years old, reasonably happy and still “overfat,” ten pounds down from my high weight thanks to working with a nutritionist and being careful-ish with what I eat. I’ve got a personal training appointment on Sunday, which is frightening, and a Groupon membership to group classes at a group fitness studio, which is also frightening and, what’s more, irritating. I take my medicine on time every time, even though I know it causes weight gain, because taking the medicine is what helps get me to a place where I’m willing and able to work on my health at all (because I’m not so wonderfully captivated by the idea of dying).

I’m doing better than usual, I suppose. I’m working on it.

And now here come the holidays, smiling and clapping and cheering and screaming, “Eat this! Eat that! Eat it all! EAT YOUR FEELINGS! THEY TASTE LIKE PASTA!”

I don’t know how I’ll handle the holidays this year, with all the eating and drinking. Thanksgiving went alright. I’m not on so strict a diet that I can’t have a piece of chocolate or a slim slice of pumpkin pie when I want it. It’s not some kind of creepy self-denial thing. But I have this thing with food, this addictive thing, this learned behavior, where I can’t just have one cookie if there is a pile of cookies sitting in front of me. I want ALL THE COOKIES. Or as many of the cookies as I can eat before I feel sick.

I’m working on being satisfied with only one of the cookies.

If you’re having trouble with food during the holidays, just know that you’re not alone. When you go home to your family (or stay by yourself, or with your family of friends), I’m right there with you, in the control-top pantyhose, trying to convince myself that there’s more to love than food, and more to food than love.

Image: Nomadic Lass/Flickr