“Chanukah is next week — here comes the binge fest.”
“Don’t bring those donuts anywhere near me”
“I’m only making baked latkes this year — my kids will just have to deal. We don’t need all those calories.”
These are all sentiments that I have seen expressed on social media in the last few days. As Chanukah approaches, so does the collective (and seemingly national) fear about calories, weight gain, fried foods and sugar. Once Chanukah starts I know that I will inevitably start to see the posts bemoaning all the food (ie. “I need Chanukah to end so that I can start my diet again”). Post-Chanukah, we can count on posts by the hour asking for “the best diet to lose the Chanukah weight” or “the best way to detox from donuts and latkes.”
You may have seen seasonal articles about how to deal with food during the various holidays. Food is a central part of Jewish Holidays — tied up in tradition, culture, family and sometimes even Jewish law (As the old adage goes, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!”). Typical pre-holiday “health” articles will give tips on how to eat less, ways to avoid food temptation, and recipe modifications to lighten up traditional holiday foods. (Pro-tip: Fried cauliflower latkes- not too bad, spaghetti squash latkes-amazing, baked whole wheat sufganiyot -no good at all- stay away!)
This article is a bit different. To paraphrase the writer Isabel Foxen Duke and her seminal work “How to Not Eat Cake …. Really Fast, Standing up, When No One’s Looking,” I present to you my top tips on “How to Not Eat Donuts and Latkes… Really Fast, Standing up, When No One’s Looking.”
1) DON’T DIET. Ever. Do you binge eat? Do you lose control around certain types of foods? Do you deem yourself “an emotional eater”? I’m willing to bet that you diet (or have a diet mentality about food- ie. You don’t even realize that you diet). Dieting is unhealthy at best and dangerous at worst (did you know that the single largest trigger to developing an eating disorder is going on a diet?). Plus… DIETING DOESN’T WORK. While many people can lose weight on a diet, weight loss is almost always short-term. Within a few years, the vast majority of people (80-95%!) will regain all the weight they have lost, with over 50% of people gaining back more weight than they lost to begin with. Put simply, diets make people heavier. Contrary to popular belief, weight regain has nothing to do with willpower and has everything to do with complex physiological processes, hormone shifts, and other neurobiological reactions to weight loss that are beyond our control. Check out neuroscientist Sandra Aamodts viral Ted Talk for more on this.
Back to donuts and latkes. If you are a dieter, these palatable foods become even more alluring. Restriction breeds temptation. “I am not eating any donuts this Chanukah” becomes “I’ve been so good on my diet all day, I’m just going to have one bite of a donut — I deserve it” which becomes “Oh my gosh, I can’t stop at one bite” which becomes “Screw it — I already broke my diet; I might as well eat 5 donuts now before my diet starts again tomorrow.” Cue the stomachache.
If you don’t diet, that script changes drastically. Binge eating is almost always a response to physical or mental restriction. Stop restricting and the chances of you bingeing go way down and eventually disappear.
2) GIVE YOURSELF FULL PERMISSION TO EAT ALL FOODS. Ditch the guilt! In a similar vein to “Don’t Diet,” give yourself complete and full permission to eat all foods. Reject the labels “good food” and “bad food.” Sure, there are some foods that are more nutritious than others, but in a balanced diet, all foods can fit. We have taste buds in order to savor and enjoy food. Eating is a great joy and there is no reason to feel guilty about it — celebrate it! A latke topped with sour cream is much healthier for you than a latke topped with guilt and shame.
Give yourself full permission to eat the foods you enjoy. All foods. Do you like donuts? Buy yourself a donut in your favorite flavor. Sit down. Put it on a nice plate. Smell it. Eat it with joy and intention. Enjoy it with every sense. Savor every bite. Don’t eat your kids stale leftover donuts. You deserve better than that. If you want a second donut, do the same thing. I promise you that if you eat a donut with FULL permission (and full permission to eat as many as you want whenever you want), you will not “go crazy and never be able to stop eating donuts.” When you eat with attunement, you pay attention to how your body feels.
Want to have a better idea of what it means to really enjoy food? Take a look at a young child (let’s use a 3 year old for our example- hopefully young enough to still be untainted by diet culture). Do 3 year olds like donuts? Most of them do. My 3 year old sure does! Watching my 3 year old eat his donut is a lesson in joyful eating. He stands at the donut counter with a gleam in his eyes and chooses the one that appeals to him (he happens to like pink donuts currently, the more frosting the better). He eats that donut with such rapture. As his mother, I get pleasure from watching him eat that donut. He is so in tune with his body that if he gets full, he will stop mid-donut and ask to save the rest for later. (Yes, this happens frequently, and no, he is not a magical unicorn. Thank you Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility for this magic). Point being — my kid enjoys his food. No guilt. No shame. No “I shouldn’t eat this donut- it’s so bad for me”. Just joy. And with joy and full permission come regulation, the ability to stop when you are full, the ability to say “those donuts look good, but I’m not in the mood; I’ll have one tomorrow if I want”.
3) DON’T EARN YOUR FOOD. Stop with the calculations. Nothing makes me more upset than the pre-holiday memes that tell you how many miles you need to run or how many jumping jacks you need to do in order to eat X food. On the other hand, one of my favorite memes (thank you unknown author on Instagram) says “Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do — not a punishment for what you ate.” Yes! Yes! Yes! What a change in perspective.
Intentionally burning off the calories that you eat is dysfunctional. Remember my 3 year old? He doesn’t think “I ate a donut. I need to make sure I go outside and swing on the swing for 19 minutes and go down the slide 47 times.” Writing it out like this makes me chuckle at the absurdity. My son plays outside and moves his body for the JOY of it, completely separate from what he consumed. It’s just as absurd when we do it as adults.
Exercise because it’s a healthy thing to do, not because you want to eat a donut. (Bonus tip: Do you have trouble sticking to an exercise routine? Take weight loss out of it and see how that changes things for you. Hopefully more on this in a future piece).
Make sure you eat regular and balanced meals throughout Chanukah. Don’t skip lunch so that you can eat more at your family Chanukah party that night. If you ate too much at your dinner party, your body still needs to eat breakfast the next morning. As my friend Registered Dietitian Yaffi Lvova says, “Three latkes does not negate the nutrition in a salad. Consuming the salad doesn’t earn you the latkes. Eat the salad. Eat the latkes. Enjoy them each for what they are. And quit the nonsensical math.”
4) BE KIND TO YOURSELF. You might overeat. That’s okay. It’s a normal part of being human. We all do that sometimes. Your body is wise and can handle it. Chanukah is a time when there are typically lots of novel foods around. If you overeat, take it in stride. Change the brain chatter from “You’re such a pig — how could you have eaten all that?” to a nurturing and more parent-like voice: “You overate and your stomach hurts now. That’s okay. What can you learn from this experience so that next time might be different?”
5) TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. For many, Chanukah is a stressful time. Kids are up late, there is lots of socializing, you might have last minute gift shopping etc… Take time for self- care. Find ways to fit in your exercise. Eat the Chanukah foods you enjoy with mindfulness and attunement. Take the time to cut up a salad for yourself (unless you don’t like salad, in which case don’t!). Put yourself to bed on time. There is a correlation between lack of sleep and binge eating.
Ask your average person what comes to mind when they hear the word “health”. Most people respond that health means “eating healthy foods” and forget that health is also a social, emotional, mental, and psychological construct. While eating a diet that is rich in nutritious foods is certainly healthy, it’s not the be-all and end-all of health by any means. Do you know what else is healthy? Feeling regulated around all types of foods (including donuts and latkes) and being able to enjoy the holiday of Chanukah in all its glory. Being able to go to your friend’s Chanukah party and not worry about what foods you might be tempted by. Being able to sit at your table with your children and enjoy a plate of latkes with them. In fact, being able to model for your children what a healthy relationship with food looks like is probably the healthiest gift you can give your children this Chanukah.
Let’s not forget that health is so much more than what we eat. Happy Chanukah!