Our contemporary use of the word "symbol" in theology is rather weak. My guess is that this goes back to the 11th century Eucharistic controversy between the erroneous "symbolic Eucharist" belief of Berengarius and the orthodox "substantial presence" articulation of Lanfranc of Canterbury.
For the heretic Berengarius, the term "symbol" entailed "not real". Berengarius' usage raised red flags and he was rightly corrected of his mistake. However, I would like to suggest that there is another way of using the word symbol that is boldly Catholic and quite helpful.
Saint Maximus the Confessor stated that the body of Christ on the cross was a "symbol" of our bodies (Maximus, Ambiguities 54, PG 91:1376). Does this entail that Christ's body on the cross is "not real"? Absolutely not. Maximus was a stalwart defender of the Incarnation. Instead, Maximus' usage doesn't make any distinction between what is more or less real. What might be odd for us in the West is that for St. Maximus, the greater "symbolizes" the lesser - it's a downward motion. Christ symbolizes us.
So when someone says, "the Communion bread symbolizes Christ," he is not only denying the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, but he is actually using the word "symbolizes" incorrectly. If we follow the pattern of the great St. Maximus, it would be more accurate to say that Christ symbolizes the Eucharistic species. Christ does this not by giving it a new name ("body" and "blood") but by changing them essentially into another substance (His true Body and true Blood, Jn 6:55). Consequently, there is no tension over which is more "real": Christ or the Eucharist. They are the same!