Holiday Food Rules That Are Really Just Diets

It’s the most wonderful time of the year ― unless you’re on a diet and have set impossible standards for eating during the holidays.

There’s nothing wrong with taking an “everything in moderation” approach at the dinner table, but other “rules” we establish for ourselves around the holidays can actually hinder rather than help our overall health. Think “I’ll work out extra hard so I can ‘earn’ my holiday meal,” or “I want to eat ‘clean’ this holiday, so I’ll skip the pie.”

Anyway, if you’re stressing about holiday weight gain, you’re probably doing so needlessly. Research shows that holiday weight gain does happen, but generally only to a minor degree. One study on college-aged adults found that holiday eating only contributed to between half a pound and two pounds of weight gain. You may not even gain anything at all. In any case, there should be no moral value assigned to weight loss or weight gain: Demonizing food at the holidays (or any other time) can have a negative effect on your mental health.

What are some of the most common rigid diet “rules” that people establish for themselves at the holidays ― even though they’re more harmful than healthy? Below, dietitians and other experts share what food concepts to throw out the window this holiday season.

Skipping a meal or snack before a holiday party to ‘save room.’

This one has “restrictive diet” written all over it. You could play the waiting game, but who wants to listen to their stomach grumble all day and get hangry at their relatives for not eating at an earlier hour? Plus, waiting until dinner to eat something may end up backfiring, said Cara Harbstreet, a registered dietitian at Street Smart Nutrition in Kansas City, Missouri, and the author of “Healthy Eating for Life: An Intuitive Eating Workbook.”

“Your body still needs to be nourished and energized throughout the day, and skipping meals or snacks can leave you overly hungry or disconnected from hunger and fullness cues when it comes time to actually dig in,” Harbstreet told HuffPost. “Although many people use this approach, remember you’re allowed to eat according to your hunger regardless of what holidays gatherings are taking place.”

Working out hard to ‘earn’ a holiday meal or treats.

The suggestion that we have to “earn or burn” our food is entirely rooted in diet culture, said Kathleen Meehan, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles. Your big plate of food isn’t an award for “good” behavior at the gym ― it’s just a plate of food.

“This rule is often perpetuated in how we talk about movement or exercise, and sometimes it’s even used as a form of motivation for fitness classes,” she said. “This does a lot of harm and it can unintentionally play a part in normalizing eating disorder behaviors.” (With disordered eating, a person is often preoccupied with excessive exercising as a way to “burn off” calories.)

Telling yourself your diet starts in the new year, as a way to give yourself permission to eat holiday foods now.

When you’re fixated on your diet, you may fall prey to now-or-never thinking: “I’ll load up on all my faves now ― green bean casserole and a double serving of stuffing ― and start my diet first thing tomorrow.”

But sometimes, thoughts like this cause people to abandon their natural hunger and fullness cues, said Andrea Wachter, a psychotherapist and author of “Getting Over Overeating for Teens.”

“Why can’t we eat our favorite foods all year long?” she said. “When we eat the foods that we like, love, and need in amounts that are respectful to our bodies, we have no use for this type of all-or-nothing thinking.”

Wachter said to imagine telling a kid that starting in January, they’ll be restricted to limited, low-calorie foods. That kid would probably load up and binge on cookies and other sweets.

“The reality is, kids need a variety of nutritious, delicious foods along with some yummy treats ― and so do adults,” she said. “Try setting a New Year’s resolution to feed yourself in a non-restrictive and respectful manner and, if needed, seek support for the unresolved issues that lead to dieting in the first place.”

Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

Give yourself permission to eat what you truly enjoy this holiday season. (Especially since some of these dishes — stuffing, all manner of pies — only come around once a year.)

Restricting yourself from drinks with calories.

Many diets have rules against drinking caloric or sugary beverages, and instead encourage us to stick to water, diet drinks, coffee or tea. That may be a sustainable goal during other seasons, but it can exclude you from many of the social activities and fun of the holidays, Harbstreet said.

“If you want to enjoy a comes-around-once-a-year nostalgic recipe, spiced mocktail, or festive favorite, go right ahead,” she said. “Remember that zero-calorie beverages aren’t inherently better or more satisfying than the drink you’re really craving.”

“This isn’t just about alcohol,” she added, “although that’s certainly an option if you wish to indulge responsibly.”

Making ‘healthy swaps’ for dishes you love, so you can enjoy them ‘guilt-free.’

Give yourself permission to eat what you like this holiday season. (Some of these dishes are only on offer once a year, so why deprive yourself of that deliciousness?)

“I often encourage clients to consider what ‘healthy’ really means to them,” Meehan said. “How can we expand the binary ‘healthy vs. unhealthy’ and add in some room for nuance? If swapping out ingredients for the ‘healthy’ version means less satisfaction, pleasure, connection to memories or your culture… is that really going to be healthy for you?”

Thinking of food as something to burn off.

Again, dieting often trains us to think of eating and exercise as an exchange system: calories in, calories out. If we know we can’t work off the sweets at the table, we might pass and say, “Ah, I’d love to, but there’s no way I could work that off with the amount of exercise I’ve been doing lately.”

“We internalize that into a belief that we must ‘make up for’ or compensate for what we eat through physical activity,” Harbstreet said.

Instead of refusing a serving of food, tap into your appetite and enjoy what you love with zero guilt. If you’re full and can’t take a slice of cheesecake, recognize that. But if it’s calling your name and you have room, by all means, have some.

“There’s no need to adopt an earn-and-burn mindset around food and eating,” Harbstreet said. “Just enjoy it if you want to, or pass if you don’t.”

How to actually enjoy the holiday foods you’re eating

If your goal is to eat smart this season ― and into the new year ― you may want to give intuitive eating a shot. It’s the idea that no dieting is the very best diet of all.

Instead of falling into the trap of tiresome food “rules,” intuitive eaters listen to their bodies and give themselves permission to eat what they want. They rely on their internal hunger and fullness cues to tell them when, what and how much to eat.

Given how ineffective diets can be ― 95% of people who lose weight on a diet regain it within five years ― many dietitians and nutritionists are starting to sing the praises of intuitive eating.

“I think as the holidays approach, it’s wise to consider exploring the non-diet approach, which allows for a peaceful relationship with food by allowing permission to eat pleasurable, satisfying foods year-round,” Meehan said.

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