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Food, Family and the Holidays

Food, Family and the HolidaysIf you tend to struggle with food, weight and body image, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas can be particularly challenging, because they revolve so much around food and mealtimes.

For the food addict — someone who either over- or undereats for emotional reasons — it can feel like there is no escape. Unlike other addictions, food is not something you can simply quit cold turkey (pun intended), especially this time of year.

Following are some tips for dealing with the food, family and holidays dilemma.

1. Identify your trigger foods and situations.

A “trigger food” is one which, when eaten, makes you feel out of control or compulsive. Figuring out which foods put you in that “I can’t stop” mode is really important. For some, it’s the first taste of sugar that gets them craving more. For others, it’s the carbs (bread, cake and the like) that jumpstart the “bottomless pit feeling.” Surprisingly, trigger foods often are linked to allergies. It’s worth getting a nutritional evaluation just to be sure. For now just try to avoid your trigger foods altogether.

Here’s a quick tip if you find yourself dealing with an irresistible craving for that trigger cookie: eat some protein (especially important for sugar or carb addicts), a piece of fresh fruit or a fresh vegetable, or drink lots of water.

Identifying trigger situations and people can be trickier. This is a skill that develops over time and with practice. Food addicts often use food as a way to suppress or divert difficult feelings. So when you find yourself obsessing about that last slice of pie or can’t stop munching on the chips, see if you can backtrack to what happened just before you started to obsess or feel out of control. This investigation can provide you with important clues about which feelings you might be using food to avoid.

For example: I had a client who binged every time she got angry. At first it was a week or more before she could link a binge to its trigger. Eventually she could recognize within a few hours what event or person had triggered her feelings of anger and consequent binge. When she was finally able to identify her anger more quickly and find constructive ways to give it voice in the moment, she found that the urge to binge disappeared.

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2. Find ways to self-soothe.

For food addicts, food can be the primary way to self-soothe. Often this imprint was created long ago when, for instance, mommy gave you a lollipop to stop you crying over your hurt knee. But there are a million other ways to self-soothe: Taking a bath, going for a walk, calling a friend, listening to music, or going for a drive are just a few. Try creating your own Top 10 Soothers List.

One crucial point: Create your list before going to your holiday events and take it with you. If you’ve thought about it beforehand and your list is as readily available to you as that box of chocolates, then maybe instead of eating half the box you’ll eat just one chocolate before going out for a breath of fresh air with your iPod and some of your favorite tunes. It takes a bit of consciousness at first to change old habits. Help yourself by taking your Top 10 Soothers List with you whenever you go out. It really works and is much more fun than yet another holiday when you end up feeling down on yourself.

3. Keep your blood sugar stable: Eat at least every four hours.

In order to avoid a blood sugar crash or the fast/feast cycle, space mealtimes and snacks throughout your day. Think of your meals as rocks helping you cross a river (i.e., getting through your day). If you space the rocks too far apart you can slip and fall. However, if the rocks are evenly spaced you can cross the river without getting wet.

Try eating three to five snacks or meals a day with at least one of them containing protein. Keeping your blood sugar stable will help enormously with keeping food compulsions at bay.

5. Avoid overly rigid rules around food.

Rigid rules around food will only make you more preoccupied with food. Expect to slip up. Don’t expect perfection. See if you can allow yourself the pleasure of food while staying connected with yourself and reconnecting with loved ones this holiday season. After all, isn’t this the best present of all to yourself and others? Follow these four simple steps and see if it doesn’t make a difference.

Here’s to a happy holiday!

Food, Family and the Holidays

Ondina Hatvany, MFT

Ondina Nandine Hatvany, MFT is a licensed therapist with practices in San Francisco and Mill Valley. She is the Director of the Eating Disorders Program at the Community Institute of Psychotherapy in San Rafael. She works with food and weight issues by helping her clients develop a non-diet lifestyle and come home to their bodies. This means redefining the body from being the battleground or "shame container" to becoming the place of grounding and connection with both the self and other. She works with clients to talk about their problems instead of trying to stuff or starve the problems out of existence. Ondina believes this is the first step toward empowerment and living a fully embodied life. She may be reached at (415) 381-1065, [email protected] or

APA Reference
Hatvany, O. (2018). Food, Family and the Holidays. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.