How to handle the holiday buffet

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and a new book on habits has an interesting take on eating. As she puts it, when it comes to eating (and most other things) there are 2 types of people. Moderators and Abstainers. Moderators, well, moderate. Occasional indulgences heighten their pleasure and the idea of “never again” getting or having something completely freaks them out. Abstainers, on the other hand, aren’t tempted easily and can say NO forever to something once the “off limits” decision has been made. They also have a hard time stopping once they’ve started so “just having a bite” doesn’t work for them.

A few years ago I would’ve whole-heartedly plopped myself in the Abstainer camp, because, BIG shocker, I’ve been an abstainer all my life. (While anorexic in high school I remember being so proud of myself for not eating and “cheating” the way bulimics did. Dear goodness, that was a tough time.)

My resolve has always been strong and whenever I’d lock-on to a new food rule (no meat, no gluten, no sugar), I did NOT waiver. In fact, I didn’t eat sugar for 10 years and it really wasn’t hard. That kind of vigilance felt good, and natural, until I finally opened my eyes to the imbalances it was causing in other areas of my life. And what I’ve realized over the last few years in releasing my abstainer grip and listening to my body is that I do have moderator abilities. I can now eat half a cookie whereas before I would have either gladly said NO to the cookie or eaten the entire box, thinking, “Well, I’ve started so I can’t stop now.”

The thing about Abstainers is we’re black and white thinkers. The answer is either YES or NO. We aren’t down for wiggle room because uncertainty makes us crazy. We like rules so we know what to expect and can plan accordingly.

Now I haven’t yet read Gretchen Rubin’s newest book but from what I’ve gathered, she believes your type is your type, so own it. I’m all about owning your personality tendencies; however, I DO believe in questioning them when they begin to feel 1) suffocating; 2) restrictive; 3) anxiety producing; and 4) like you’re living a thin slice of life.

The thing about Abstainers is we can get so locked into abstaining that we forget to feel into whether or not saying NO still works for us. And what I know about my moderator clients is they feel guilty for not saying NO enough. They think they should be like Abstainers with ironclad willpower and just try harder to say NO to sugar or gluten or whatever it is. And so they try, then say yes to dessert and feel like sh*t about themselves for not adhering to the “rules”.

Here’s what’s missing: No one is listening to their body.

Abstainers say NO to pumpkin pie because of their predetermined rules and Moderators say YES, not because their body necessarily wants it but because to say no makes them feel restricted, bereft and left out.

The problem: Everyone is eating from thinking rather than feeling. Both Abstainers and Moderators are walking in with a pre-set eating plan in their head. Why? Because eating from thinking is a safe default that we know, whereas eating from feeling puts us in a murky grey area where we eat based on our body’s feeling, which is ever changing and therefore terrifying.

When we eat from feeling, Abstainers may be asked to say YES to something that has previously been a NO and Moderators may be called to say NO when they’re used to saying YES.

I like to call this EATING IN THE GREY; a state where there are no black and white rules to uphold or break but rather where we listen to our physical body’s desires in that particular moment.

For Abstainers and Moderators alike, here’s what eating in the grey looks like at your Thanksgiving meal:

  1. You walk up to the buffet line and see turkey, stuffing, rolls, green beans, sweet potatoes, pie, etc.
  2. Before making any decision on what you're going to have or not have, you take a deep breath and feel into what your body wants.
  3. You stand in front of the turkey and ask your physical body, “Do you want to eat this right now?” The key here is knowing you’ve eaten everything at the buffet at least once before so you can imagine what turkey will taste and feel like in your tummy. If the answer is YES to turkey, put it on your plate. If the answer is, “Ya know, I’m not really in a turkey mood since we had turkey last night,” then PASS and move along to stuffing.
  4. For each food item, imagine the flavor, what it will feel like in your body, then let your body answer yes or no to it.

It may be that the only food your body says YES to is pie or green beans. Totally cool. The key in eating in the grey is letting yourself eat without judgement and in full presence of what your body wants. (And if you’re immediate response to this is, “If I do that, I’ll just eat bread and pie all night!,” read this and this.)

**One caveat here. The holidays are a time of wonderful memories where we eat to celebrate, connect and remember traditions. In eating grandma’s pie or mom’s stuffing we eat not out of hunger but to nourish the emotional centers within us that bond us to the people we love. I actually think that’s FINE and perfect for practicing eating in the grey. It’s an opportunity to enjoy a scoop of mom’s stuffing while also staying connected to your physical body’s experience and stopping when she’s done rather than when you’ve polished off the stuffing tray because you only get it once a year.

Learning how to eat in the grey is the ONLY way to enjoy the holidays without getting anxious about what you should or shouldn’t eat or saying F*CK IT and eating everything in sight because willpower is too hard. Think about it this way: You are allowed to have anything on the buffet table that you want whenever you want it (YES, you can actually have turkey and pie any time of year), it’s just a question of, DOES YOUR BODY WANT IT RIGHT NOW? Tweet this.

This year, do it differently. If you’re an Abstainer, notice if there’s a hard-lined food NO that’s begging for a yes. And if you’re a Moderator, try to say YES not just because the food is there but because it’s the exact thing you want.

This year, together (because I’ll be doing it too), let’s ease up, listen in and eat in the grey.




P.S. Eating in the grey is an important piece of the Just F*cking Eat It curriculum, which is why I chose to run the course during the holiday season. I know you’re over secretly feeling neurotic at every holiday gathering. Enrollment closes in 5 days and I don’t want you to miss the opportunity to finally feel at ease during the holidays rather than nervous, restricted or guilty.  Click here and join us.

P.P.S.  What would it be like to not have to say NO to sugar cookies or worry about over doing it with the stuffing this holiday season? Join me Thursday, November 6th at 12 noon PST for a Twitter chat with Tara Dellolacono, nutrition strategist at Clif Bar, as we talk about how to not lose your mind and eat everything in sight this holiday season. To follow the chat and get your questions answered, use the hashtag #justeffingeatit. See you on Twitter!

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