Navigating Holiday Eating - Healing the Yi Spirit
When the holiday season approaches, I invariably encounter questions about maintaining a healthy lifestyle or preventing weight gain during this festive period. As a practitioner who adheres to the principles of Health at Every Size, (HAES) (1), I view these inquiries as a doorway to a broader cultural concern, that of a pervasive tendency toward fat stigmatization with an excessive focus on weight loss and so-called 'healthy' eating at any cost.
In my role as an acupuncturist, it's common for individuals to seek assistance with weight loss. For me, this represents an opportunity for education and coaching aimed at helping people establish a healthier relationship with food and their bodies. This guidance steers them away from potentially harmful diets or regimens that can lead to disordered eating patterns and directs them toward true health, which entails finding balance and moderation in all aspects of life.
It's crucial to understand that there isn't a sustainable, long-term solution for weight loss that works for everyone. Most studies examining various weight loss methods rarely extend beyond two years. With the recent surge in the use of diabetic injectables for weight loss, this topic is at the forefront of current discussions. The process of shedding pounds is strenuous and stressful. This additional stress accompanying the pursuit of weight loss and dieting can cause an increase in cortisol, which may even accelerate the aging process rather than deter it (2). Although health outcomes and weight may be associated, there are no clear causal links (3). To me, this implies that if health is a primary concern, there are usually safer and more effective paths to achieve it without intentionally shedding weight. I take my patients' mental health seriously, and I've witnessed and experienced firsthand the harm that excessive dieting can inflict on one's mental well-being (4). Thus, when the subject of weight loss arises, I am unequivocal in my stance: supporting intentional weight loss is not a service I provide. Healing one's relationship with food, feeling less distressed about their body, and identifying wholesome solutions to chronic health problems without focusing on weight loss are where our focus should lie.
The Yi Spirit & Disordered Eating
I think the Yì 意 doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Although this spirit comes up almost as frequently as the Hun in practice, I find it much more nuanced and subtle. Many women and some men in my practice present with varying degrees of a Yi disturbance. These patients are plagued with overwhelm, overthinking, worry, people-pleasing tendencies, and codependent relationships. Not everyone presents outright with disordered eating, but on further investigation, we generally find some sort of disordered relationship with food and body image, such as a history of dieting or weight loss attempts, clinical eating disorders, or fasting and other ‘health’ based restrictions around eating.
My top signs of a Yi disturbance include (but are not limited to):
- Obsessive thoughts and overthinking
- The inability to take action on our ideas - our thoughts don’t align with our actions
- Disordered eating and/or body image distortion
- Muddled thinking
- People pleasing - helping others at our own expense
- Difficulty or inability to set and hold boundaries
I find this cluster of symptoms to be very interesting because they are so commonly found together - it’s a general presentation of using our Qi for others at the expense of our own needs, which can result in being stuck and unable to take action, overthinking and worry, and issues with food and body perception. As our Qi becomes depleted, there isn’t enough remaining to truly live a vibrant life. It’s also interesting to note that the symptoms caused by a Yi disturbance can also create a Yi disturbance. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg paradox, but the good news is that the way to heal and re-integrate the Yi doesn’t require knowing what came first.
Our Yi spirit is the center point between Heaven and Earth, it connects and helps facilitate communication between the more Yang spirits of the Shen and Hun and the more Yin spirits of the Po and Zhi. Just as the Spleen and Stomach help us digest our food, the Yi helps us digest our reality and helps us to acknowledge, assimilate, and integrate the experiences we have in this lifetime. In a healthy state, the Yi is about setting intention; it takes the insight of the Shen, the goals of the Hun, and sets the intention for the Po and Zhi to transform these plans into reality. If the Yi is detached, we may never get started on our ideas because we aren’t energetically signing the contract to begin.
Recognizing this type of spiritual detachment in clinical practice can be difficult, and often takes a deeper understanding of the patient than just one or two initial meetings. As we learn more about their history, particularly emotional history, we can begin to understand which spirits may be affected and then adjust our treatment plan accordingly. When patients are not responding to typical treatments in the way we expect, this is usually an indicator that there is a spiritual component. Asking about childhood traumas, significant events and parenting styles can also be interesting clues for our diagnosis. For the Yi, the patient may have been exposed to alcoholism in early childhood, had caregivers who were in a codependent relationship (typical in alcoholic households) or caregivers that criticized their body, put an emphasis on looks or created a disordered environment around food such as forcing a child to clean their plate when they weren’t hungry, using food as reward or punishment, or putting the child on a diet for weight loss.
Healing the Yi revolves around harmonizing and tonifying the center. The Yi is the center point of the spirits, so we need to create a space for the Yi and Earth element to thrive in. This may include improving digestion, tonifying Qi, and helping the patient create healthy boundaries. We will go over some very tangible intuitive eating strategies below which are incredibly helpful for patients with Yi disturbance and disordered eating tendencies.
For acupuncture treatment we will work on the Earth element and help the patients feel centered and grounded in their body. Some of my favorite points include:
- Stomach 36 - Leg Three Miles - this point helps a person to generate and hold more Qi and energy and to use that energy to step forward in life and move through things when they feel like they’re on the precipice of giving up.
- Spleen 6 - Three Yin Crossing - the point where three Yin meridians meet is generally used to tonify and bolster Qi and Yin fluids, Spleen 6 brings forth the qualities of all three elements which pass through it - the vision and growth of Wood, the cleansing and releasing nature of Water and the supplementing and nurturing qualities of Earth.
- Stomach 25 - the Celestial Pivot - this point is quite literally the center point of the physical body, the bridge above and below, and a personal favorite for a Yi disturbance to help a patient bridge their Yang / ethereal / spiritual qualities with living in the world in their Yin body.
- Bladder 49 - The Hut of the Yi - this point can be a subtle harmonizer to help the patient make a connection with their true purpose.
Self-healing principles are about making small changes consistently, keeping promises we make for ourselves, learning to set clear boundaries, and healing our relationship with food. The key here is small bites - these aren’t promises like hitting the gym every day; it’s small promises like making the bed every day and something we can surely follow through on. The act of doing it helps to rewire the brain and invite the Yi back to the center again because we are no longer denying our own needs. Learning to set boundaries is another frightening and potentially difficult act. While it may be useful to work with a therapist to help with this, small bites is still the principle. Setting a boundary around things that aren’t ‘important’ helps us build the muscle to set boundaries when things are more important to us. Incorporating the intuitive eating principles and practices outlined below can be perhaps the most important aspect of self-healing for the Yi, especially if we’ve had issues with our relationship with food in the past.
As the Yi heals and reintegrates, we will notice increased self-confidence, particularly around the ability to set boundaries or say no. Our relationship with food and our bodies will begin to improve, feeling less reactive or attached to this aspect of our being, knowing that our inherent truth is not rooted in being a body, but in being a spirit. We can follow through on our promises to ourselves and we can manifest our ideas into intentions to set forth into the world.
Intuitive Eating Practices for Healing the Yi & Navigating the Holidays
Hunger - Fullness Cues
For patients with a history of dieting, fasting, or disordered eating, this practice can be truly transformative and exceptionally beneficial. When we embark on diets, we inadvertently convey to ourselves that we must disregard our own inner voices. Over time, this can lead to codependent patterns and people-pleasing behavior, especially when dieting is instilled during childhood or persists over an extended period. Learning how to tune into your body's signals and, subsequently, honoring that information can be profoundly healing.
The steps involved are quite simple. I prefer to use a scale from 1 to 10 to describe hunger and fullness sensations:
- Absolutely Starving: This is when physical symptoms like feeling faint, having a grumbling stomach, or feeling dizzy are present.
- Starving: Physical symptoms such as a grumbling stomach are noticeable.
- Hungry: At this point, physical symptoms of hunger are not yet present, but you begin to feel hungry.
- Need to Eat Soon: No physical hunger symptoms are present, but you know you should eat soon.
- Could Eat Soon: You're not particularly hungry, but eating would be a good idea.
- Satisfied with a Little Room for More: You feel satisfied but could eat a bit more.
- Satisfied and Content: You're content with your level of fullness.
- Full: You feel physically full but not uncomfortable.
- Overate: You're physically full and starting to feel uncomfortable.
- Painfully Full: You're physically full and experiencing discomfort because of it.
Our goal is to maintain a range between 4 and 7, where we eat when we're comfortably hungry, but not excessively so. A straightforward practice involves checking in throughout the day, even when it's not mealtime or when you feel hungry. This helps us become more attuned to what these sensations mean and where they fall on the scale.
We live in a fast-paced society and culture; unfortunately, eating on the go or while multitasking has become a common practice. I'm guilty of it, and my hunch is that you might be too - no judgment here. One issue that arises when we engage in mindless eating or fail to be fully present with our food is that we tend to disconnect from our bodies. In doing so, we lose touch with our hunger and fullness cues, essentially "missing the meal." Consequently, we don't experience the same level of joy and satisfaction because we barely notice the meal in the first place.
Embracing mindful eating can be a challenging endeavor. Many patients face various obstacles when I recommend this practice to them. The primary objective is to consume at least one meal a day with complete attention and focus. That means no reading, watching TV, surfing the internet, listening to music, getting caught up in work, or even engaging in conversation. Just be fully present with your meal and observe what you notice.
Initially, this process can be difficult, even painful and agonizing for some individuals, while others adapt more easily. It's truly remarkable how this practice allows us to tune into our feelings while eating, leading to more satisfying meals. Mindful eating techniques help us reconnect with our bodies and minds, often shedding light on our behaviors and thoughts related to food in the process.
For patients who may not have fully embraced the “anti-diet movement,” I like to take a middle-ground approach, and one way to guide them toward a healthier dietary structure is by emphasizing balance. This means incorporating all macronutrient groups and fiber into every meal. This approach can be particularly useful when dealing with issues like binge eating or when reintroducing foods that were once deemed "off-limits." By allowing ourselves to enjoy a wide variety of foods, we can loosen the grip of disordered eating and reduce the urge to binge as we're no longer restricting ourselves.
It's a straightforward strategy: when you're craving a particular food, it's important to give yourself permission to enjoy it. To achieve more balance, ensure that the food or combination of foods you consume includes a bit of everything from the list below:
- Carbohydrates: These provide energy.
- Fats: They offer stable energy.
- Protein: This helps you feel satisfied.
- Fiber: It contributes to a feeling of fullness.
- Foods you crave: These contribute to your overall happiness.
As an example, how can you make something like pancakes “healthy”? Here's how you can make them balanced:
- Pancakes: Provide carbohydrates and fulfill your food cravings.
- Turkey breakfast sausage: Offer protein and fats.
- Strawberries: Contribute fiber and carbohydrates.
When we approach our diet in this manner, we tend to feel both physically and mentally satisfied. We also benefit from the additional nutrients we gain from this balanced meal approach.
Boundary Setting & Communication
Heading to family dinners can be quite stressful for some individuals, especially when dealing with "food pusher" or "judger" type family members. You might have a mother who consistently adds extra food to your plate, a grandmother who gives you disapproving glances if you decline her pie, or the ever-present Uncle Bob making weight-related comments, regardless of your size. These situations can be challenging, and it's often tricky to weigh the pros and cons - should you just skip these gatherings? How can you assert yourself without reacting defensively? Developing this skill takes time and practice, but every small step matters.
I believe the most crucial thing to keep in mind at these events is that you're entitled to say "no" without offering an explanation.
Setting boundaries revolves around your own behavior and the limits you establish for how people interact with you. It's not about controlling what other people do or don't do. Before attending such events, you can create a personal game plan. For example, you may want to reach out in advance and inform your family that you won't entertain questions or comments about your body or food. Perhaps you decide that if they disregard this request, you will leave the event. Your plan can be as complex and tailored as you prefer, but having a strategy in place beforehand can bolster your resolve, enabling you to stay true to yourself during times when you might feel significant pressure to conform to your family's desires or comments.
Finally, when things inevitably deviate from your plans, practicing self-forgiveness is a pivotal component for ongoing progress. It's okay if it wasn't perfect or if you succumbed to Grandma's peer pressure. Remember that it's just one day among many, and a single day doesn't make or break your journey toward health and healing.
A Note on Alcohol
Lastly, it's crucial to address the topic of alcohol consumption. How should an intuitive eater approach alcohol? The key is to tune in to your goals, expectations, and the aftermath of consuming it, and carefully consider your choices based on what you're seeking and the experiences you want. This principle can also be relevant for individuals with food sensitivities who still have a fondness for foods that may make them feel unwell later.
When deciding whether to drink at an event, it can be beneficial to ask yourself this question: Will drinking enhance or improve my evening, and to what extent?
If the answer is no, it becomes evident that drinking may not enhance your evening, and it certainly won't promote your health. However, if the answer is yes, then you can explore how much alcohol is the right amount. Is it one drink, or perhaps five? Does becoming heavily intoxicated or merely tipsy genuinely enhance the evening, or are you using it as a way to avoid something or soothe your nerves? Consider how you'll feel afterward - both physically and mentally. Does that feeling align with your overall health and life goals?
The decision to drink or not can be complex for many of us, and that's perfectly fine. Asking these questions helps us gain insight into our motivations for drinking and establish some guidelines for determining the right balance between beneficial or enjoyable alcohol consumption and behavior that may be problematic or counterproductive to our goals. If you have food sensitivities, the same questions apply - is the pleasure now worth the potential discomfort later? Sometimes the answer is yes and other times it's no.
Intuitive Eating Allows You to Enjoy
One aspect of holiday eating that often goes underestimated is how simply enjoyable it can be. Let's be honest, it's a unique time when we receive a bundle of 30 different types of cookies in the mail, and it's genuinely fun to savor each one, even if it might lead to an occasional stomachache. Restricting yourself from the foods you love during the holidays because you fear it will 'undo your progress' can set you up for overindulging or experiencing regret later on.
It's essential to remember that one day of indulgence won't undo your progress or jeopardize your health, just as one day of healthy eating or exercise won't magically bestow health or fitness upon you.
So, embrace the holiday season, have a bit of fun, and enjoy those delightful foods if you so desire. Remember, it's all part of the celebration!
- Amy Kiefer et al.. (October 1, 2008). Dietary Restraint and Telomere Length in Pre and Post Menopausal Women. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70(8), 845-49. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e318187d05e
- Secrets from the Eating Lab, Traci Mann PhD 2015.
- Eric Stice. (September 2002). Risk and Maintenance Factors of Eating Pathology: A Meta Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 825-48.