It’s time to call out Christmas fat-shaming

Christmas tends to be that one time of the year when you can eat, drink and be merry without any of the guilt that’s foisted upon us the other 11 months of the year. It’s a period for spending time with loved ones - often over a warming mug of mulled wine or a tray of mince pies. The very last thing that any of us should be worrying about is maintaining or losing weight.

It’s odd then, that The Times decided that now - at the tail end of what has to be the most stressful year on record - was the perfect time to tell readers ‘How to avoid gaining weight over Christmas’.

The piece prescribed 27 rules for keeping weight at bay over the festive season, including weighing yourself at least twice a week, avoiding pigs in blankets and fasting.

Even more troubling was the inclusion of tips such as ‘preloading’ with water before every meal to make dieters feel full. As anyone who has struggled with disordered eating knows, that’s a tip straight out of the pro-anorexia rule book. 

 Readers, understandably, slammed the feature. 

‘This is not responsible and I’m so bored with this rhetoric that you need to lose weight. All of these tips wouldn’t look out of place on a pro-naan website and as someone recovering from an eating disorder, would be the sort of article I’d keep and introduce all of these tips into my diet,’ wrote one person. 

Another said how shocked they were by the advice, suggesting that a better bet would have been to write a piece ‘about how bodies are meant to change and fluctuate’.

talkhealth’s own resident dietitian, Sophie Medlin, says: ‘Press articles like this push people into believing that they can’t even spend time with their families and eat foods that they will only eat at Christmas without the ever present fear of weight gain. None of the 27 tips included need to be adhered to over Christmas and I want to make it clear that if you are anxious about gaining weight over Christmas this is not normal or healthy and it is something you can get help with.

‘This kind of narrative around food encourages us to lose trust in our bodies and our ability to regulate our appetites. It teaches us that we need an external person or rules to keep “on track”’

Food is more than just fuel. It’s a social glue, an endorphin producer, a relaxer. It’s a celebration and commiseration. If people are serious about losing body fat in the long term, it’s essential to assess what role food plays in your life - as well as other physical and biological factors that may be feeding into overconsumption or fat retention.  

Perennially being on a diet or watching what you eat isn’t good for you, mentally or physically. It’s a well-known fact, for example, that people who constantly under-eat struggle to shift body fat. Constant dieting not only causes stress but can lead to being malnourished;  the body switches to energy-conservation mode (a bit like going on low-battery mode when your phone is being drained) and starts to breakdown its own muscles for fuel. Our body composition relies on a healthy ratio of lean muscle mass to body fat; the higher the muscle mass, the lower the body fat. If you’re not fuelling effectively, that ratio can go off-kilter.

 Many things affect our ability to burn fat. Poor sleep and stress are two of the biggest issues. Too much cortisol (stress hormone) stops the body from relaxing enough to use stored fat and allow muscles to grow. Rather than telling people to fear standard Christmas fodder and to engage in dangerous habits, articles like The Times’ should be telling people to prioritise 8-hour sleeps, to carve out ‘me time’ during the festive period, to think up coping mechanisms for getting through a corona-Christmas or family disputes. Those are far more useful, both in terms of maintaining a healthy weight and protecting mental health. 

If eating a plate of roast potatoes, washing them down with a good bottle of wine and finishing up with a healthy portion of Christmas pud with your household makes you feel good, go for it. No one has the right to shame you for celebrating togetherness or making the most out of an annual holiday. Getting in a decent walk every day is a good idea for brushing away the cobwebs, helping with digestion and helping you to safely see those you don’t live with but now really isn’t the time to stress out about exercising as a form of penance for overindulging. 

‘The truth is that what we all need to do is tune into our bodies more and enjoy food for all the things it is, including joy and celebration,’ Sophie explains.

‘In January, the parties will be over and the celebratory food will be gone and we’ll be back to our normal routines. Enjoy the feasting and make the most of Christmas, it only comes around once a year and we all need it more than ever at the moment.’

Perhaps the reader who commented the following on The Times’ piece has it nailed: ’I think I’ll follow the sentiment of the Tesco ads this Christmas: “There is no naughty list this year, so tuck in!”.’

Rather than engage in disordered eating habits over the festive period, join us a Christmas special webinar with Sophie on 16 December. Register here.

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 11 December 2020
Next review: 11 December 2023