Why We Really Need to Stop Talking About Detoxing After the Holidays

Experts explain why the concept of a “holiday detox” can be so damaging — plus, how to enjoy the festivities without vilifying food.

Luckily, society has moved on from long-standing, harmful terms such as “bikini body,” finally recognizing that all human bodies are bikini bodies. And while we’ve mostly put this kind of toxic terminology behind us, some dangerous words have stuck around, clinging to outdated perspectives on health. Example: bikini body’s wintertime cousin — “holiday detox.” Blech.

And despite what celebs such as Lizzo (and her recent smoothie detox) and the Kardashians (um, remember when Kim endorsed appetite-suppressing lollipops?) might post to social media, you don’t need to “detox” from food — be it Christmas cookies or a weeklong diet of comfort foods (thanks @ PMS) — to be healthy.

Let’s get something clear from the start: The holidays are not toxic! You do not need to “detox” from them! Sorry for yelling. It’s just that, experts in mental health and food have also been yelling this into our brains for a while now — that it’s this kind of messaging that’s truly toxic, not the food itself. After all, this time of year is supposed to feel indulgent — it serves a purpose in its own right.

“The ‘detox during [or after] the holiday’ narrative can have some very detrimental psychological impacts if not managed carefully,” says clinical psychologist Alfiee Breland-Noble, Ph.D., MHSc founder of The AAKOMA Project, a nonprofit dedicated to mental health care and research, and host of the Couched in Color podcast. “I always like to reframe this time of year as a time for reflection and renewal, both of which center us in the present with an eye toward a more positive future.” In other words, instead of focusing on detoxing the past (whether it be foods or habits), stay grounded in the present moment to feel joy and gratitude for what’s to come.

When Language Harms Your Health
Consider this:

Detoxifying is implying that an unwanted toxin has entered your body. So, using language such as “detox after the holidays” implies those delicious festive meals were somehow “toxic” and should be removed. Not only is this, well, sad and confusing (how can something so tasty be “bad?”), but it’s also considered food shaming, which can lead to serious psychological and physical consequences, according to scientific reviews, studies, and experts alike. Think: anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and disordered eating (including orthorexia). Using the word “detox” in relation to the holidays (and this isn’t exclusive to end-of-the-year festivities, FTR) inherently applies shame to foods, and shame is the opposite of healthy. Plus, the way you frame and deliver information and the words you use all has a direct impact on your emotions and mental wellbeing.

“[Be] mindful of the ideal behind why we encourage people to detox,” says Breland-Noble. She explains that traditionally, detoxes have been geared toward women as a way to pressure them to achieve a “better” body — sometimes that message is a bit hidden and other times it’s loud and clear. But that beauty standard is “an unrealistic, culturally white, heterosexual American standard that does not account for all of the beautiful diversity inherent in communities of color (and among white women themselves),” she says. “This narrative reinforces negative and unattainable body types that shame women who do not fit the unrealistic standard.”

“This detoxing language is harmful to everyone, but especially for the young women this messaging primarily targets,” says registered dietitian Lisa Mastela, M.P.H., founder of Bumpin’ Blends. It implies that enjoying and relaxing with joyful activities — having a second latke, baking cookies with family, sipping spiked hot cocoa by the fire, munching on caramel popcorn during a Hallmark movie — is a bad thing, equated to a drug you need to get out of your system.” Peppermint bark ≠ a drug.

“With this in the back of your mind, how are you supposed to have positive experiences around the holidays?” asks Mastela. “Everything holiday revolves around food somehow, and everything will be tainted with this unnecessary and completely undeserved shame and guilt.”

The Physiology of Shame and Stress

The concept of detoxing from the holidays “starts off your next year with this idea of needing to be ‘extra clean,’ which sets you up for inevitable failure mid-January or early February when you burn out post-detox,” says Mastela. “Enter: shame and guilt spiral. Enter: next detox for ‘summer bod.’ Enter: next shame cycle. It’s an endless loop of shame and guilt.”

“The elevated cortisol from constantly cycling your eating habits (and the stress over those eating habits) can shorten your lifespan,” she points out. High levels of the stress hormone have also been associated with increased risk for Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, she adds.

It’s also important to point out that those who’ve struggled with eating disorders can be especially triggered during this time of year. So many aspects of the season can be especially tough for those who’ve dealt with an ED, that the word “detox” alone can be triggering. And while everyone’s recovery looks different, “scheduling virtual meetings with your therapist, meditating, and planning ahead (or acting out scenarios) can all help, but it’s so individual,” says Mastela.

Know That Holiday Food Is Important

If society’s going to assign moral value to food, why not make it positive? Not only does it bestow emotional and spiritual comfort (holiday cheer is a real thing and nostalgia can in fact make you happier), but also because it connects you with your culture, notes Breland-Noble. “Food is one of the most unique cultural markers we have,” she says. “There are so many different types of cuisines and methods of preparation that reify who we are as people of diverse cultures.”

That includes the process of cooking and creating food. “The process of preparing food is often culturally based and serves as an activity to bring people together and help us honor (and pass down) traditions,” says Breland-Noble. “If starchy foods are a cultural staple in your community and a big part of how you connect with family during the holidays, how do you ‘detox’ from them at all — or in a way that honors you and your customs?” Better yet, really ask yourself why you would want to.

If you’re more interested in the nutrition side of this argument, know this: Holiday food is not harming your body. “Rest assured that whatever kinds of foods you’re putting into your body over the holiday season are fine,” says Mastela. “It’s likely that your home cooking — whether it’s sweets or other holiday meals — is actually less toxic than the other food you’re eating throughout the year.”

Yes, holiday foods are typically more indulgent — eggnog is never going to be a kale salad. But try putting it in perspective with the rest of what you’re eating; the mission here is to remove guilt and realize that you’re nourishing your body and soul this time of year.

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How to Approach the Holidays with a Healthy Mindset

It’s understandable that these long-standing perspectives on indulgence and guilt won’t be changed overnight, but you can make small, positive behavior changes during the holidays that can begin to change the way you look at your food choices this time of year and beyond.

Instead of planning a post-holiday “detox,” what if you just ate more slowly and mindfully, savoring and appreciating your food, practicing gratitude? “Focus on the joy — relax and meditate on the idea that food is a near-essential part of holiday joy and pleasure,” says Mastela. “And remind yourself that you have a liver who is constantly detoxifying you.”

If you’re struggling to ditch the post-holiday detox mindset (which can be hard to de-program if you’ve been in this headspace for years!), here are a few things you can do to begin to break the pattern, according to these experts.

Work with a therapist, a food-specific therapist, or a registered dietitian. (Not sure where to start? Therapy for Black Girls and American Psychological Association have easily-searchable directories for mental health pros and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for R.D.s.)
Start journaling about how grateful you are for your food and how it makes you feel on an emotional level.
Find a recipe to share with a friend or family member, and make it together; this could heighten your emotional experience and memory around a special holiday dish.
Try meditation and mindful eating, two mind-body practices that can lower your stress levels and help you appreciate food even more.
If 2020 is a dumpster fire, how about we throw the word “detox” in there and run away to 2021? Sounds like a plan.

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