Gaining Weight While Losing Meaning Over the Holidays

Most of us struggle with overeating to at least some degree, and the holiday season is easily our most challenging time of the year. The special foods of holiday parties and celebrations are visually appealing and absolutely delicious, to the point where maintaining self-control is impossible for most of us. We enjoy ourselves while we’re eating (even if we quietly despair that we can’t stop sooner), then repeatedly experience the physical and emotional misery of having eaten far too much.

For many of us, the weeks to come will be characterized by deteriorating health and vitality as we continue to abuse our bodies with food we can’t resist. Most of us will give in to the endless stream of powerful temptations, fearful of missing out on special opportunities for enjoyment, and in the hope that we’ll be able to repair the damage once the season is over. That will work out for very few of us. Most of us will exit the season a little heavier and less healthy than when we started.

We do this because we use food in so many ways, especially during the holidays. We eat it for simple enjoyment, of course, but we also use it for bonding with loved ones, as a way to pass the time together, as the focus of valued rituals and traditions, and as an expression of celebration.

These purposes all have value, but making food the star attraction for all of them creates two important problems. First, we eat so much that it detracts from our physical and emotional health, which is not only damaging but also defeats the purpose of celebration. Second, our overuse of food displaces other activities that would actually be better at strengthening our relationships and satisfying our emotional needs.

The answer is to give food a more proportional place in our lives in general, but in our celebrations in particular. This means continuing to enjoy it, share it, and look forward to it, but doing so within our physical limits. When we start making other options more important in our lives, there will naturally be less emphasis on food. This will help all of us with self-control, in addition to giving us a richer variety of ways in which to enjoy ourselves and take care of our emotional needs.

I’ve found that when people decide to look past food for other ways to focus their gatherings with friends and family, especially when brainstorming together, they always come up with plenty of ideas. It is an inspiring and heartwarming process to witness as everyone starts feeling creative, energetic, and excited in ways that they have not experienced when focusing on food-centered plans and ideas. A sampling of ideas that I have heard:

·         Play games or work puzzles together.

·         Share family photos, videos, and stories.

·         Volunteer together for the day and enjoy a casual meal afterward, sharing stories of the experience.

·         Go for a walk or hike together, before or after the meal.

·         Go out on a group mission to perform random acts of kindness for a couple of hours.

·         Play outside with the kids.

·         Make another activity—movie, play, concert, visiting a local attraction—the central focus of the gathering, enjoying a simple meal together afterward.

·         Make crafts together for personal use, for donation to others, or for getting a head start on holiday gifts.

·         Work together on letters to US military personnel who are away from home.

·         Make gift baskets or boxes for donation (shelters, nursing facilities) or to send to US military personnel.

I’ve heard from many who have gone on to use ideas such as these in their own holiday gatherings, and all have felt greatly enriched for having done so. In fact, they’ve all emphasized how much more they enjoyed themselves in general. These comments are typical: “The kids loved it … We had a great time ... It felt really good to do this … It was the best family get-together we’ve had in a long time.” They tell me these stories with big, relaxed smiles. They look happy.

This reveals perhaps the most important consequence of overemphasizing food in our lives and our celebrations. We now use eating in place of other personal and relational practices that would be far more nourishing to the spirit, and the spirits of many have been left impoverished as a result. I speak every day with people who have been trying for years to fill that void with food, becoming emptier inside as their bodies become sicker, bigger, and more unwieldy.

This is another compelling reason to give food a smaller role in our lives. It’s not just about reducing caloric intake, although that is a result we happen to need desperately. The more important outcome is that the attention we turn away from food will be turned toward thoughts and activities that are far better at enriching our lives, feeding our spirits, and honoring the deeper meaning of the holidays we celebrate.

This article is excerpted from Why We Overeat and How to Stop, published in 2016 and available at

Copyright © 2016, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW. All rights reserved.


Related articles:

Are You a Compulsive Eater? Test Yourself and See

Basic Strategies for Managing the Urge to Eat

Loving Each Other to Death with Food

Raising Kids to be Emotionally Balanced with Food

Risk Management: The Overlooked Key to Finding Peace with Food

Ten Tips for Managing Food during Special Occasions

Your Weight May Not be the Problem

When is It Time to Consider Psychotherapy?


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