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IMPORTANT: this isn’t about diet tips or telling you not to eat! This is for any woman whose physical or mental health gets affected by feeling like her eating/appetite gets out of control at Crimbo.
I used to be a big time Christmas binger. The minute I’d hear those Christmas songs on December 1st I’d think, “Yippeee it’s time to eat whatever I want!” After spending most of the year yo-yo dieting and weighing myself daily, I’d revel in the reprieve, and swap calorie counting for calorie cramming. Christmas was a time to spend, spend, spend, eat, eat, eat and drink, drink, drink.
Initially I’d love the “freedom” around food. It was fun, liberating and “festive”. But, as December continued, my body would feel bloated, my head foggy, and on Christmas day, I’d end up in actual physical pain due to stuffing myself more than the poor turkey. It didn’t end there though. Oh no, the week of leftovers between Christmas and New Year would make me lose sight of what day it was and what normal eating habits were. By this point, my clothes wouldn’t fit properly and my energy would be non-existent. I would be filled with Quality Streets, along with self-hatred and shame at my lack of willpower around food.
Every year, I’d allow this feral behaviour because I knew there was a calendar “crash barrier” in the form of January 1st. New Year’s Day was like Cinderella’s midnight curfew – instead of my carriage turning into a pumpkin, my excessive eating would turn into extreme dieting. I wasn’t alone in this routine though. I saw women everywhere doing it so, I believed it was normal. However, the definition of madness is – “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Every year, I believed this would be the year I’d not overeat and crash diet but, every year the same pattern occurred.
Women get stuck in the cycle of stuffing, shaming and starving and I want to change that. I finally got a grip on my own habits a few years back and it’s been so liberating. I want you to know there’s more to this madness and uncontrollable eating in December than willpower alone. It’s also not about binging or banning festive foods. There’s more things at play in your body, mind and environment that drive this behaviour and it’s this empowering knowledge that I believe women need more of – not just being told to swap Christmas pud for crudités.
Four reasons you’ll probably over-eat this season:
In case you needed reminding – you’re a human being. This means you’re connected to the natural world you live in. You have a circadian rhythm within your body that means at certain times of the day or night, certain hormones are released to help you stay awake, sleep and do all sorts of other things to function. It’s why, if you’re jet-lagged or miss a night’s sleep, you feel so crappy. You’re simply working against how your body is designed to function and its natural rhythm.
However, you also have a seasonal rhythm which, much like your circadian rhythm, means you’re wired to do certain things in certain seasons to stay in your best mental and physical health. In winter, there’s darkness, coldness and shorter days, while the plants and many animals (who are naturally living in tune with their surroundings) take things down a notch. All plant activity is taking place underground in the cosy, dark, soil – there’s no flurry of green shoots appearing simply because it’s Christmas time. Animals do everything, from full on hibernation, to just snoozing more and eating less, resting and recovering from the year’s activities.
Instead of being in our cosy caves and going to bed early in the deepest, darkest part of winter, we humans are told that it’s party season! We eat, drink and stay up more, which is literally the opposite of what the season directs our body to do. That unrelenting tiredness that follows you around from December to the end of January isn’t because you’re lazy, getting old or super ill – it’s because you’re meant to be resting and recovering. That yawning that begins around 4pm every day, isn’t because your body has a problem, it’s because daylight disappears and your body is telling you to snuggle inside and sleep, not slap on your sequins and go for drinks.
The amount of people with SAD, colds, flus and other mental and physical illnesses in winter is a big indication that we’re pushing our bodies beyond their natural seasonal limits. Women tend to carry a lot of the extra work at Christmas and then worry about why they feel so exhausted. That’s why we reach for the high-sugar and high-fat snacks to give us energy and keep us going. I know you think your body is uncontrollably craving the hot chocolate and sticky toffee pudding – but, what it’s truly craving is comfort, warmth and a time to rest.
Sparkly solution: I want you to enjoy yourself at Christmas and, of course, eat treats that you love. But, don’t use these as your constant energy source. Whenever you can, take a moment to rest or go to bed early. You’ll still have work to do and parties to attend, but, if you can get everyone in bed for 8pm one night – then you should go to bed then too. Know that, despite the extra work and pressure, you’re in your season of hibernation. Don’t always reach for the comfort foods when you can reach for actual comfort – a warm bath, a new blanket, cosy socks and most importantly, extra rest time and early nights.
2. Your hormones control your appetite.
Your appetite is dictated by your hormones (apart from when sneaky tricks are employed by the food industry – which you’ll find out about in point 4). As your hormones change over your 28-day cycle, your appetite changes too. For example, your appetite will increase the week before your period because your body needs more energy to gear up for the intense process of menstruation. And why do you feel heavier this week? Because you are! The lining of your uterus has thickened and your uterus is bigger, so the daily weigh-ins and moaning about your stomach looking fat are not good or helpful. Just like nature, you expand and contract over your monthly cycle/seasons. You were never designed to stay the same weight with the same appetite over a month.
A sudden increase in appetite the week before your period (called the luteal phase) may make you think you’re just having ‘no willpower’ as your body urges you to eat more calories. However, if you understand how clever your body is, you’ll know that your body is asking for more food because it needs more energy and, in this part of your cycle, you’ll actually burn more calories too. This appetite increase before and at the start of your period will happen at least once in December so, the week leading up to your period and the first few days of your period, you should eat more.
The reason you can trust your body is that if your hormones are balanced, your appetite will naturally decrease after your period (called the follicular phase). You’ll assume this is when you’re being “good” and have more willpower but, it’s just the natural ebb and flow of your incredible female body. You can read more about your phases here .
Sparkly solution: Start tracking your cycle with something like the MyFLO app and, if your appetite seems out of control or excessively increased, check where you are in your cycle. If you’re the week before or just starting your period, acknolwdege that your body needs more energy to fuel the hard work it’s doing and reward it with more food. Try to include lots of wonderfully nourishing food like extra green veggies and complex carbs (yep, carbs are not bad for you!) and if you want to have something sweet or super-fatty then that’s fine too (you’ll just want to not have too much, as this can increase inflammation in your body and make PMS worse or your period more painful).
3. You’re given a rare permission slip to eat and enjoy food.
If you’re a woman, you’ve likely consciously or subconsciously been told that you cannot be trusted around food. Most women have been taught how to diet, how to restrict food, and how their uncontrollable appetites must be curbed and kept in check. We’ve been taught we must weigh ourselves, count calories, become the smallest versions of ourselves and deny any cravings. If we can’t do this, we tend to binge BIG TIME, mentally beat ourselves up, and then start all over again with a new diet and hopefully more willpower.
Telling women that food should be limited and controlled – except around Christmas where excess is exalted – creates an unnatural focus and obsession on it. The very notion that we have to weigh ourselves, watch our bodies and deny or restrict certain foods, will only make us want them more. This has been proven in scientific studies!
Most women have been “schooled” that sweet or fattening foods cannot be eaten freely and this has messed with our brains. It’s simply created a huge desire for them. If we believed they were in plentiful supply and “allowed” throughout the rest of the year, we just wouldn’t want or feel we need them to the same extent. Many of the foods you probably overeat at Christmas are usually the ones that have been “banned” by your dieting. Your body and brain has not been “allowed” them, creating an unnatural obsession with them. We are then given a small window where we can binge on these foods, and it be acceptable before they get banned again in January. It’s the same behaviour that drives people panic buy petrol when they’re told it’s in short supply.
Sparkly solution: Trust your body. Know that if you educate yourself on the foods that make you feel amazing and can boost your health and sparkle, then you have a permission slip ALL YEAR to eat what you want.
4. The Game is Rigged!
I know you think it’s your fault and that you have no willpower when it comes to eating five mince pies instead of one. I know you think it’s because you don’t have the same willpower as the skinny women on the advert who can eat just one Ferrero Rocher and think “Oooo you are spoiling us.” But, let me tell you – you’ve been set up. That whole tub of cookie dough ice cream that vanished in 15 minutes, or whole family bag of sweet chilli crisps, have been carefully designed to make you behave in a certain way. For so long, women have not understood, that when it comes to dieting and willpower, the game is rigged!
Believe it or not, your body knows when to stop eating and when you’ve had enough. It has systems to stop you wanting to overeat salt and things that are overly sweet. However, those systems have been hi-jacked by sneaky food scienctists. If you were craving something sweet, and the only thing on offer was maple syrup or raw sugar, you’d have a small amount and then you’d not want anymore. Your body doesn’t like super sickly sweet things. Similarly, if you wanted something fatty or salty and ate those in their natural forms, your body is clever enough to know the amount that’s needed for fuel before no longer craving it.
However, your brain chemistry has been rewired by cunning food combinations without you ever knowing and it’s left you feeling powerless around food! Food companies trial their foods to make sure something does not go over your natural sweetness barometer and they keep their flavourings within something called your “bliss point”. You also have a reward pathway in your brain that releases dopamine – a real feel good neurotransmitter linked with feelings of pleasure. Certain foods and food combinations stimulate this reward pathway, which is also stimulated and “rewarded” by addictive drugs like cocaine. The trouble is that no natural foods release the high levels of dopamine and pleasure highs that the processed foods dished up over the holidays do.
Food companies work with specialised consultants and food chemists to combine magical combinations of sugar, salt and fat that are known to light up the pleasure, reward and addictive pathways of your brain (suddenly the “Once you pop, you can’t stop” slogan becomes a little more sinister). So, if certain foods feel addictive to you, it’s probably because they have been engineered to contain the “magical” combo of sugar, salt and fat that light up the same parts of your brain as other addictive substances.
Sparkly solution: Use your newfound knowledge to realise that you’re being duped. If you find yourself excessively eating or thinking about certain food items, look at the ingredients. They probably have sugar, salt, and fat (remember these won’t always be labelled clearly and may be hidden by other words/terms). I like to think of these foods like a drop-dead gorgeous guy at a friend’s party who is flirting with you, flattering you and making you feel pretty excited. You’re just about to fall for his charms and spend the night with him when you remember your friend warned you all about him. This guy has studied how to charm women and says the same things to all women to titillate them (only to give the ones who do go home with him a variety of diseases). Armed with that knowledge, you’d likely end your flirtation and move away to chat to someone else. So, if you’ve had four of those delicious pastries and you’re full but, feel you need to go and get another four, realise your brain is trying to get its “fix” of dopamine. Then what you do next is totally up to you. Read more about your need for pleasure and why we use food for it, here.
So, this is just a reminder that you’re smart, beautiful and wonderful and I want you to have an amazing time over the holidays. I want to enjoy yourself, love yourself, be good to yourself and sparkle bright with this newfound knowledge. Eat, be merry, but don’t harm yourself or hate yourself in the process.