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Can healthy holiday eating actually be unhealthy?

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With the holiday season around the corner, tips and tricks for healthy holiday eating are almost unavoidable. But does this unsolicited advice breed unhealthy eating habits in itself?

Thanksgiving dinners and holiday treats tend to cause increased calorie counting and a guilty conscience, which could ultimately lead to unhealthy mindsets surrounding food. So, how should individuals navigate inherently unhealthy holiday eating in a way that promotes positive perceptions of food?

We sat down with Carol Peterson, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Eating Disorder Specialist with the Medical School‘s Department of Psychiatry, to discuss approaching healthy holiday eating in a way that is healthy for both the mind and body.

Health Talk: Can it be unhealthy to focus so intensely on healthy eating, especially during the holiday season?

Carol Peterson: Yes, holidays can be a challenging time for individuals. The increased focus on food during the holidays, which is festive and enjoyable for most people, can be difficult for individuals who may already be preoccupied with food, weight and shape. Because part of “healthy eating” is enjoying holiday foods, some individuals find that they may be overly restrictive and under eat. Others may find the availability of food at holiday celebrations difficult because of they struggle with overeating and regulating their food consumption. Some individuals avoid holiday celebrations and time with family and friends because of their struggles with eating, which can lead to social isolation.

Health Talk: When does healthy eating become too extreme?

CP: Sometimes individuals restrict their eating to a very limited amount or types of foods in an attempt to be healthy (for example, eating predominantly vegetables), but this type of eating pattern can lead to health problems including inadequate nutrition, weight loss and/or binge eating that occurs as a result of extreme dietary restriction. Preoccupation with eating, weight and shape [can] interfere with the individual’s ability to concentrate at work, school, social and leisure activities. If attempts at “eating healthy” lead to frequent thoughts that make it hard to concentrate, psychological health suffers. These types of problems that are associated with extreme dietary restriction can also contribute to anxiety, depression and social isolation.

Health Talk: Can obsessing over healthy eating impact mental health?

CP: Obsessions with thoughts about “healthy eating” can lead to preoccupations that interfere with work, school, hobbies and social relationships. Research studies from our group and others have found that these types of obsessions with what to eat, when to eat or what has been eaten, as well as the impact of eating on shape and weight, are upsetting and disruptive. Many individuals with obsessions and preoccupations with eating will describe thinking about food frequently, even 55 minutes of each hour. These types of thoughts can contribute to anxiety, negative body image, excessive self-criticism, depression and difficulties concentrating at work and school.

Health Talk: How should individuals navigate unhealthy holiday eating in a way that promotes positive perceptions of food?

CP: Overly restrictive “rules” about eating, like trying to avoid entire food groups, can actually lead to more overeating. If a person believes that they have “broken a rule,” they will often feel like they might as well overeat because they have already “blown it.” For this reason, focusing on consuming a diet rich in nutrients as well as being flexible in enjoying holiday foods in an intentional way without overeating can be a useful guiding principle in the context of holiday eating. In addition, many people view holiday eating as “opportunistic” and eat, or even overeat, food that they anticipate “not allowing” themselves to eat after January 1st. Alternatively, approaching holiday celebrations as a time to enjoy the season with family and friends without an overemphasis on this type of opportunistic eating can reduce both anxiety and overeating.

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