Stop Worrying About Holiday Eating—and Do This Instead

By Lisa Newman

As we approach the holiday season, it’s only a matter of time until a slew of articles appears on the topic of managing your eating. You know the ones: “10 Tips for a Thinner Thanksgiving” or “The 7 Smartest Ways to Cut Thanksgiving Calories.”

Every year, these guilt-inducing headlines fill us with anxiety. We begin to dread the upcoming war between our cravings for all the delectable treats and the desire to control our appetite. It’s no wonder we start to fear holiday eating and begin developing battle plans.

However, did you know that there is a way to approach holiday eating in a manner that doesn’t pit you against the pecan pie? It seems counter-intuitive, but what if the healthiest way to eat on the holidays is to eat what you want?

How Can It Be Healthy to Eat What I Want?

It’s completely normal to worry about holiday eating. After all, these are special occasions focused on food. However, in the big picture, worry about holiday eating is misplaced, because it’s not what you eat on holidays that is important.

Holiday eating represents a small portion of your overall food intake. Even if you add in all the special days, vacations, and weekends away, you still only come up to a percent of your overall eating. It’s what you eat on all the other days that matters most.

Just like an hour of exercise can’t offset an otherwise inactive lifestyle, focusing on holiday eating can’t make or break an otherwise balanced diet. If your eating supports your energy and nutritional needs most of the time, it won’t matter if you occasionally indulge. Your body has mechanisms to adjust your metabolism and appetite to account for the occasional extra intake.

Deprivation Is the Real Danger

While tips for avoiding overeating at Thanksgiving sound healthy, the bigger picture shows that the resulting deprivation can drive worse habits in the future. This is why it’s important to zoom out rather than micro-focusing on individual meals and actions.

Think about how you feel when you figuratively spend your energy outside of the celebration. Rather than enjoying yourself, your brain is consumed with carb counts and calories.

In my experience, this feels alone and unfair. You don’t feel like part of the group. You’re in a state of stress, rather than relaxation and connection. You’re focused on what you can’t have. It’s this deprivation that drives future cravings.

Let’s say you read those articles on managing your holiday eating and go into Thanksgiving armed with a plan. You eat breakfast and aren’t starving (always good advice), you’ve “lightened up” your recipes without sacrificing taste (not a bad thing), and you have a plan for focusing on the socializing, rather than the food (also a healthy practice). Then you come face to face with all the rich, calorie-laden, special memory-evoking dishes that are only available on this one day.

No matter how hard you try, you won’t win this battle. It’s not you. No one can win this battle. Even normal eating will feel like you’ve failed when you taste foods you’ve categorized in your head as “bad.”

And even if you manage to eat “perfectly,” you’ve spent the day looking at food you can’t have, wishing your body were different, and feeling deprived. It’s human nature that this then fuels feelings of inadequacy, shame, and even self-hate—and that’s the real danger. “What the heck,” you may reasonably think. “I’ve blown it already, so I might as well eat everything in sight and diet later.”

But now you’ve given yourself permission to eat much more than you would have if you had not tried to deprive yourself in the first place. And since you’re going on a diet in a few weeks, you might as well keep eating. It’s this “what the heck, I’ll diet later” eating that actually fuels the dreaded holiday weight gain you’re trying to avoid.

This is what drives the dieting cycle in which you flip back and forth from deprivation to overindulgence. It ensures that you will gain weight by overindulging not just one day, but every day until you start another diet.

Zoom Out For the Bigger Picture

In the bigger picture, it’s the dieting cycle that is the problem, not an occasional day of eating indulgence. And the way to avoid getting into the dieting cycle is to not attempt to restrict your holiday eating in the first place.

I’m not endorsing becoming a mindless eating machine. Do approach holiday eating in a mindful way. Eat slowly and savor every bite of your grandmother’s special pie and your mother’s home-baked brown-sugar yams without worry.

Giving yourself permission to eat some pie now can go a long way toward avoiding future overeating and binging. Consider that the healthiest thing can be to allow yourself to drop the guilt, step away from the battle, and eat what you want this Thanksgiving.