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Dr. Aimée Derbes, LAC

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How to navigate holiday eating situations....and love yourself and everyone else while doing it

Align Acupuncture Blog. Musings about healing, acupuncture, herbal medicine, breathwork, and more.

At my offices in Brooklyn (serving Gowanus, Park Slope) and Manhattan (Flatiron), I see patients who are dealing with chronic pain (back pain, neck and shoulder pain, knee pain, hip pain, and ankle pain), headaches + migraines, digestive issues (IBS, colitis), infertility, stress, insomnia, PMS, women's health, and autoimmune conditions (Lyme, Hashimoto's, thyroid conditions, and many more).

How to navigate holiday eating situations....and love yourself and everyone else while doing it

Aimée Derbes

In my world, food = medicine, an essential, nourishing, pleasurable cornerstone of all health and healing. I advocate for a vegetable-heavy, whole foods diet with some personalized tailoring to fit your needs. Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” about sums it up -- though, in keeping with my additional background as a Nutrition Educator, my own direct experience with a long list of eating styles, plus what Chinese medicine teaches about food and nutrition, I would make it “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly cooked plants.” (And you can download a pdf here that summarizes digestive system supporting eating according to Chinese medicine).

Also, I’m pretty into balanced blood sugar, which supports sustained energy, a healthy stress response, emotional resilience, restful sleep, and kinda everything. (Also: did you know acupuncture lowers blood sugar, among many other things?) Low to no caffeine for the same reasons, for anyone who deals with insomnia or anxiety (applies to like 80% of New Yorkers. I have enough data of patient experiences at this point to feel confident that you’ll feel and sleep better, at the very least, if you eat regular meals and cut the coffee.)

If you’re still reading after that thing I just said about quitting coffee, thank you! And/but this time of year, oh my god -- it can feel impossible to feel relaxed and rooted in healthy food and lifestyle habits when constant holiday parties, “treats” hanging around the office, and potentially stressful family holiday trips and meals are all happening. Here's what might be coming up for you:

Maybe the food is not to your taste, and you don’t want to offend anyone by passing on it. Or you don’t want to attract unwanted attention by people who do that thing where they publicly judge or comment on *your* food choices because secretly they are not at ease with their own eating choices.

Maybe the food is not in alignment with, or in glaring direct opposition to, your eating philosophy, or includes allergens that no one else seems to think are real or take seriously -- and you don’t have access to other options because you’re in the middle of rural somewhere without a car to take you to a grocery store.

Maybe the family / work / friend circle eating and drinking culture is so overpoweringly hypnotically strong you feel like you don’t have choices. Or maybe, for example, you’re at a wedding, and you literally don’t have choices. 

No matter what you’re facing, trust me: I’ve been there. I know how challenging the holiday season can be. In fact, for the sake of back story, here’s a (partial, if you can believe it) chronological list of the range of eating styles I’ve followed over the years: 

  • Pescetarian: later, non-dairy pescetarian, and still later, pescetarian but with bacon. The first time I ate fish in 3 years, I was so energized that I felt like I had just downed a pint of espresso. And I give my friend Melinda a hard time about how she makes an exception for bacon, but, truth is, I did it too for a while...
  • Whole foods based / all the foods diet: heavy on the vegetables and home cooking, my primary way of eating for years and years
  • (Brief hiatus for 4 years of acupuncture school diet: extra heavy on the chocolate and sugar)
  • Current: autoimmune paleoish, for the most part, and, by a long shot, I've never felt better
  • Vegan: college-era, totally malnourished, heavy on soy ice cream and vegan pizza type of things
  • Macrobiotic: post-college, insane amount of starches and soy products, felt stuffed and tired for the duration
  • Raw: while living in California, had diarrhea and was freezing for the duration
  • Vegan: round 2, macobiotic-ish but more mindfully done with actual green vegetables and almost no soy
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: after getting bloodwork done and seeing crazy vitamin deficiencies, decided to eat eggs and dairy again.

 

 

So are you are bored as I am reading that list yet? I've experimented a lot, trying it all to see what feels best in my body at different phases of health, healing, and life. That’s over 15 years of intentional food choices, which means that I’ve had over 15 years of experience navigating holiday party and meal situations that don’t align with my habits (plus the year round weddings, vacations, etc.) Especially because the list of the eating styles my family has followed over the years clocks in at 2: Southern, and New Orleans native. 

As you might imagine, spending holidays in places like New Orleans, Texas, or Georgia tends to throw up some hurdles to eating a plant-heavy, whole foods diet, but I’ve done it all (and some of it the hard way, over and over) and learned what to do. There is really always a way to fully support yourself, no matter the environment, and it doesn’t have to involve contraction, bracing yourself, or over-controlling every aspect of your experience. Here’s what I’ve learned, friends. 


Do some planning

Prepare, but see if you can let it not be a huge deal

A while back, I wrote a blog post on preparing for healthy travel, which had a heavy focus on the snacks and foods. That all still stands. Whether you’re going to a wedding or a party or a week long trip to rural Iowa or wherever, bring your favorite healthy foods/snacks so that you’ll always have grounding, nourishing food, no matter what. This is especially important if you have allergies or sensitivities, or follow an eating style that may not be respected where you’re going. You can bypass leaving it up to chance whether you’re going to be able to eat clean protein by bringing it yourself!

Before you travel, google map some local health food store options; there might be something in the vicinity of where you’re going. With some advance planning, decide when you’re going to go to the store and how you’re going to get there. Make sure it’s built into the schedule.

My mom and I got into the amazing habit of going straight from the airport pickup to Whole Foods, which is near the airport but not near my parents’ house, making more difficult to go to once I’m settled at their house. It saves her work by not having to guess what I want to eat or feel stressed about my different food choices, and it ensures I can have all the green vegetables, coconut yogurt, and organic whatever I want while visiting.

Offer to cook

Obviously this one doesn’t apply to parties or weddings, but if you’re going to be with family for days and days of meals, offer to cook. Maybe your aunt is burned out on cooking for 12 every holiday and would appreciate a break -- and you can swoop in and make food that you actually want to eat, with love and intention. Everyone wins! Staying busy in the kitchen can also be a great strategy for taking a time out from socializing, spending time grounding yourself.

Eat before the party

If you know you’re going to a meal or party that’s likely to be light on foods that work for you, eat at home beforehand. That way, your blood sugar won’t be crashing mid-party and encouraging you to reach for the nearest weird hors d’oeuvre. (THB this one has never worked for me, but I'm including it because friends and clients of mine have had life-changing great success with it over the years.)


Turn up the curiosity

Inquire

Pause, check in. Ask yourself, am I hungry? Am I hungry for this thing in front of me? What am I actually hungry for right now? Sometimes it’s food. Sometimes it’s water. Sometimes it’s hugs, or connected conversation, or alone time.

Sometimes, you’re not hungry at all; you’re really anxious because your family members are closing in, incessantly asking you things like “so are you dating anyone?” or maybe they’re even coming right out with the “why aren’t you married yet?” or whatever their button-pushing thing is, and you’re thinking that the quickest solution to buffering against their energy and questioning is the pile of cookies that’s right here. 

That’s fine, emotional eating is a thing that we all do sometimes. And sometimes, the thing that causes the least amount of stress to your whole being is simply sitting down, eating the cookies, and chilling. But see if there’s space to get a little curious before you decide what’s right. Maybe you can get a glass of water. Maybe you can leave the room. Maybe you can speak up for yourself and make a request that that person press pause on that topic or type of conversation. 

A good companion to this is having some go-to grounding practices, to bring your awareness into your body wherever and whenever (here are some tips for that). Receiving breathwork and Healing Touch as part of your self-care practices can be amazing for learning what your own energy feels like.

Let it be ok, exactly as it is

If you’ve taken a beat to check in with your body and get clear on what it is you’re hungry for -- or not hungry for -- and you still want to eat the thing, eat the thing! You get to eat the thing. You get to eat anything you want. You are 100% allowed, 100% of the time. It's all ok.

This can be a tough practice for some people. The buddhists have this concept of the second arrow. The first arrow is the thing itself -- in this case, eating the cookies. The second arrow is the story about what the eating the cookies means -- aka, suffering. The first arrow is life. The second arrow is optional. Who would you be, without shooting a bunch of arrows at yourself at every turn? How much more fun and free would eating the cookies feel? Is it worth noticing the stories for what they are -- just some stories, and optional?

A related practice is letting it be ok that other people have *their* stories and beliefs and choices about food, and those are different from yours. If you’re on a spiritual path, then you'll be served up a lot of contrast and differing experiences at every turn; especially in your family, it'll be right in your face. Other people get to make their own choices, even if you feel like know more about nutrition or lifestyle choices or health. Other people get to eat in the way that they feel good about, or don't feel good about as the case may be, without you jumping in to change or educate. This was a hard lesson for me that took years of practice before the sting was finally gone, but I don't get to know what's best for my friends and family members, who are on their own unique spiritual paths (and in fact, some of them don't think they're on a spiritual path, so there's that too) -- I don't get to decide how they should or shouldn't be eating. It's just not up to me. Instead, I get to love them, exactly as they are, differences and all.

Play with flexibility

Oh, flexibility. When you're "healthy" this thing can happen where it's really easy to become crazy rigid. Suddenly, food becomes a mine field full of things "I can't eat" and it's a total nightmare for you (also, for everyone around you! They're in hell with you, I assure you, and are just as triggered by your rigidity as you may be by their relaxation.). We should probably talk about orthorexia sooner or later in a separate post because this is something I have a lot of experience with. But for now, let's see how flexible we can be in any given situation.

For example, if you're at a restaurant that is heavy on conventionally raised meats and produce, but at home you only eat organic, is it better to sit there throughout the meal, hungry but eating nothing? Or maybe you could order a side a steamed vegetables, bless and thank them, knowing your body is healthy and can deal with nonorganic vegetables sometimes, and, for protein, pull out that low-mercury canned salmon or tuna you brought with you because you're super amazing at packing now? Or maybe that's not the right move at all, but are you willing to find happy mediums where you can? Are you willing to feel into the solution that causes you the least stress, even if it's not what you'd expect, and go with that?


Make liberal use of time outs

Try Tapping

Holiday parties and meals can be stressful. I love tapping because it just works. So do yourself a favor and learn it in advance, and if you find yourself in a triggering family holiday situation, you'll have a powerful tool ready to go.

Go for walks

Especially good if you're in environments where you don't have access to a car or public transportation -- aka, you're a little trapped. It's ok. You can always take yourself outside, get your blood and qi flowing smoothly, and connect with whatever nature is around -- sun, sky, wind, trees, earth, perhaps some water. If you're feeling stressed, go outside. If you're feeling anything, go outside. Just go outside.


Whatever your belief and traditions, wishing you the happiest holidays yet, and let me know how it goes! For some personalized support, I offer acupuncture, herbal consultations, Healing Touch, and breathwork meditation in person in NYC and remotely. Please get in touch or make an appointment if it feels right!

A few more resources to help you get find out with what you’re actually hungry for:

Just about anything by Geneen Roth
Intuitive Eating by by Evelyn Tribole and‎ Elyse Resch
The Tapping Solution by Nick Ortner
The Whole30 by Melissa Hartwig (helpful travel prep chapter) 
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach