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Commentary: Your Holiday Food Anxiety Is Harmful to Your Health

A man sits at a dinner table at Christmas looking sad as his head is lowered and resting on his hand. He sits with a pink hat on, alone with a plate of food in front of him. Getty Images

The holiday season is often abundant with food, desserts, and delicious baked goods. However, for many people celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, or another holiday at the end of 2017, that piece of pie comes with a side of anxiety and guilt.

Further, many people struggle with feeling anxious about overeating during the holidays. Paradoxically, this anxiety can actually be harmful to your health in a variety of ways.

Increases cortisol

When we feel anxiety around certain foods (or over the quantity of food that we consume), we actually increase our cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that can lead to increased anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, sleep problems, and heart disease.

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It’s far healthier to let yourself mindfully enjoy all foods, rather than labeling some as off-limits or bad.

Damages your ability to connect with others

If you are focused on anxiety around having overeaten or the fear of doing so, you are taking away valuable mental energy that you could be using to connect with family or friends over the holidays.

A Harvard Medical School study found that there is a strong correlation between having strong relationships and leading a fulfilling life. Our relationships have a vast impact on our overall health and well-being. When we are anxious about food or beating ourselves up for overeating, we can’t truly enjoy the time we’re spending with loved ones.

Negatively impacts your mental health

Mental health is an important part of your overall health. Feeling anxiety, guilt, or shame around certain foods (or overeating) can have a highly detrimental impact on your state of mind.

Instead, it’s important to practice being compassionate with yourself. Even if you did overeat over the holiday, you need to realize that even “normal eaters” overeat sometimes. Our bodies are not calculators and they are very much able to adapt to an overeating episode. Overeating at one meal—or even a few meals—is not going to have a significant impact on your overall health.

Additionally, sometimes anxiety around overeating can cause people to restrict their food intake leading up to “the big meal,” which is a huge trigger for subsequent binge or overeating episodes. Instead of doing this, nourish yourself appropriately throughout the day so that you don’t walk into the big dinner starving.

Separate food from anxiety

Food and anxiety do not belong together. The only time you need to feel anxious about food is if you just stole some from the store. Otherwise, don’t think of overeating as a moral failure. You did not rob a bank or hurt a puppy. It’s important to be kind to yourself, no matter how much you eat over the holidays.

Jennifer Rollin is an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Md.

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