Food is not a punishment you have to ‘work off’

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A toxic partnership indeed. Imagine if our holiday treats weren’t demonized. Imagine if enjoying an indulgent meal wasn’t connected to guilt. Imagine if exercise wasn’t associated with “earning” us the right to calories, or cleansing us of their shameful presence.

I think we should try to imagine those ifs into existence. This year, of all years.

Eating disorders skyrocketed during the pandemic. Since March 2020, when lockdown orders went into effect in most states, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline has reported a staggering uptick in calls — a 78% year-over-year increase during some months. Teenagers account for up to 35% of the calls.

Providers have been turning away new clients or adding them to monthslong waiting lists.

“It’s really, really worrisome,” author and psychologist Lisa Damour told me in the spring.

A survey conducted for Well Beings and PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs asked teens how the pandemic was affecting their mental health and revealed an alarming truth, Damour said.

When asked to select the factors that have a negative impact on their mental well‐being, more teenagers selected “weight, fitness level, general health, or body image” than any other category, including social media, racial violence and associated trauma or financial struggles. It was the No. 1 concern for girls and the No. 2 concern for boys, after social media.

ExploreRECIPES: Your holiday’s supporting players

The loss of predictable routines and rhythms, cherished after-school activities and face-to-face friendships likely fueled the eating disorder increase, Damour said, with kids (and grown-ups) suffering from a mixture of boredom and isolation, combined with a desire to exert control over some area of their lives.

It’s against that backdrop that many of us are gathering — after not gathering last year, in many cases — for holidays. Holidays that revolve around prepping and cooking and eating and drinking.

What better time to untangle the ways we’ve been taught to feel ashamed for surpassing our FDA-recommended daily calorie intake? What better year to stop linking — particularly in the earshot of kids — a pre-dinner hike or after-dinner touch football game to burning calories, and instead link them to fresh air, nature, fun?

“We should take every opportunity to talk about the pleasures and benefits of food: It tastes good, it brings us together, it gives us energy, and it supports our health,” Damour told me this week, when I asked her about holidays and eating disorders. “We should steer clear of talking about any food as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or talking about exercise as something we do to ‘repent’ for what we’ve eaten. So long as we frame eating and activity as essential to taking care of ourselves, we’re setting the right tone.”

Damour said she’s increasingly aware, as a mental health practitioner, of the lengths the diet industry goes to assert itself into our daily lives, particularly through social media.

“Algorithms track what social media users look for,” she said, “and if they search for information about weight loss, exercise or fitness, they will soon be flooded by ads that push exercise programs, diet plans, and even dangerous supplements.”

Explore3 benefits of exercising outside in cold weather

I appreciate the goofy little Thanksgiving meme’s attempt to offset the onslaught.

Next to the cranberry sauce … “NOPE you can find joy and purpose in them exclusive from one another.” And next to the roll with butter … “NOPE you can also just take a holiday and chill for a few days.”

This year, of all years. When our kids and our psyches and our nerves have been through the wringer.

This year, of all years. When we’ve learned how quickly the traditions we know, the people we love, the rituals we rely on, can leave us — faster than we expected, long before we’re ready.

This year, of all years. I hope your holiday meals are bountiful and beautiful and enjoyed with grace, gratitude and zero shame.

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