Many of us say good-bye to healthy eating during the holidays. The holidays are fun and celebratory—and this includes food. At the same time, overindulging doesn’t feel good either. How can you enjoy the holiday season without overeating? Here are fifteen tips:
- Find “enough.” It’s easy to get into the trap of, “It’s the holidays, I can eat whatever I want!” This is all or nothing thinking, overdoing it now, and then punishing yourself with a diet in January. On the other hand, feeling deprived—not allowing yourself to enjoy special holiday foods—will lead to overeating. The solution is to embrace enough. Find that sweet spot where you feel treated—maybe it’s your mother in law’s famous mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie—and then stop. Enjoy what feels good without overdoing it. This is healthy indulgence.
- Relax your anxiety about holiday eating. 500 extra calories of potatoes and stuffing is not going to harm your body. What harms your body is anxiety about those extra calories. Scientists even have a name for this: pleasure anxiety. When we label foods as good or bad, we feel bad when we eat “bad” foods. Then every time we eat a slice of pie or a hunk of bread, we feel guilty. According to nutritionist Marc David, this anxiety about eating treat foods puts our bodies in a stressful state, translating into weight gain. By contrast, when you relax and enjoy your food without guilt, you put your body into a state of optimal digestion—instead of sending your treat foods straight to your hips.
- Listen to your body. Part of the reason we feel guilty for eating pleasurable foods is that we overeat them. Don’t throw all your limits out the window. Honor the subtle difference between healthy and unhealthy indulgence: when the extra bite of pie makes you feel overstuffed, or when an extra serving makes you sleepy and groggy. Listen to your body—it will tell you when you’ve had enough. Your mind, however, we tell you to keep eating. Separate the two by feeling your hunger or growing fullness, instead of listening to your mind’s desire for more.
- Savor your food. When we shovel our food down without tasting it, our brain interprets this as, “I haven’t been fed.” It will continue to seek out food so that it feels full and nourished—leading you to overeat. Changing this behavior isn’t a question of willpower, but of awareness. Slow down. Savoring your food will make you satisfied with less. Get out of your thoughts—anxieties not only about food but also about the family dynamics that pop up during the holidays. Pay attention to the taste, texture, and aroma of your food. When you’re eating, focus on eating.
- Start small. There is some truth to the adage, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” Mindless Eating author Brian Wansink has conducted numerous studies showing that large plates, large serving sizes, and eating without visual cues (not putting food on a plate so you can see how much you’re eating) will cause us to eat more. Instead of loading up your plate with huge mounds of food, start small. Start with a smaller serving, and then give yourself permission to eat more if you’re hungry. We tend to do the opposite: We give ourselves too much food and then eat it all, feeling overstuffed.
- Honor the power of leftovers. Part of the appeal of holidays is that we eat special foods that we reserve for this time of year. This can lead to feelings of scarcity, where we hoard the turkey, sweet potatoes, and apple pie because they only come around once every twelve months. As Scarlett O’ Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day.” Instead of doing your feasting all in one day, spread it out over the course of the holidays. Save the leftovers, and have turkey again the day after the holiday. Having your favorites more than once quiets feelings of, “I have to have it all right now.”
- Be prepared. Don’t make healthy eating any harder than it needs to be. Plan your day if you know that you typically overeat on holidays. For example, if you know that there won’t be any fresh veggies at the meal, bring a salad. If you’re a vegetarian, bring a dish that you can eat while everyone else is eating turkey.
- Eat regularly and earlier. You may think that “saving up” your calories for dinner will allow you to splurge at dinner, but this strategy backfires. (This is how sumo wrestlers gain pounds of flab.) Eat regular meals, even with the approaching feast. If you can, move your holiday meals earlier in the day, when your digestion is strongest. If your family traditionally eats at 6:00 p.m., then eat a regular lunch and breakfast. This keeps you from overeating at dinner because you’re famished.
- Honor your needs. You can’t keep everyone else happy and honor your body’s limits. You must choose. If someone insists you try something you don’t want to eat, or loads your plate with food, you can say no. You can put half of the food in a doggy bag. You can save half for later. It’s okay to kindly say no to food—most of the time, no one else notices.
- Find your center. If you’re someone who uses external cues to eat—if you eat when other people do, even if you’re not hungry, for example—then it may be hard to stop eating when others are overindulging. Find your center by tapping into your needs. Do you need to leave the table and sit in front of the fireplace instead? Do you want to go to the bathroom to brush your teeth to signal that you’re done eating? Do what you need to take care of yourself. This is another example of how putting yourself first can stem the tide of overeating.
- Leave the kitchen. When you’re surrounded by temptation, it’s helpful to get away from the food. Go outside. Instead of watching football, play a pick up game in the backyard. Go on a walk after the big meal—take a plate of turkey to an elderly neighbor, or take the leftover pie to the police station. These activities get you moving, help your digestion, and change the day’s focus from being solely about the food.
- Focus on things besides food. We use food to connect with our friends and family, and to celebrate. But there are a million other ways to create a holiday spirit that don’t involve eating. Create a ritual of sharing what you’re thankful for. Play board or card games. Watch a holiday movie. Look through old family photo albums with grandma. Help wash the dishes and bond with your aunts in the kitchen. Create those feelings of love and connection without focusing on the food.
- Love your family for who they are. Often, what fuels our overeating isn’t the food itself, but all the mental baggage we bring with us to holiday gatherings. Release your expectations for your family. Love them for who they are. If your sister gets tipsy and critical every holiday, prepare for this. Ask yourself, What do I need to do to take care of myself so I don’t overeat? instead of trying to change her.
- Create pleasure in non-food ways. Food is a primary way that we give ourselves pleasure. But it doesn’t have to be the only way. Spend some time thinking about what a celebratory, rich, and festive holiday means to you. I love sleeping in on holidays: it feels like a Saturday to sleep past 7:00 a.m. I also enjoy talking to friends and family on the phone, and watching movies. These acts make me feel pampered, so that I don’t have to make food my only outlet for joy. How can you add joy to your holidays without food?
- Give up on perfection. If there’s anything that we can learn from the French paradox, it’s that enjoying our food goes a long way towards making us healthy. No one eats perfectly. It’s an impossible goal to strive for. You will drive yourself insane trying. Drop this expectation. Let it go. Relax. Food isn’t just about calories or protein or fat grams but also about joy and nourishment. Create a food culture that listens to your body (it will tell you when it’s hungry and will tell you when it’s full), honors the nourishing act of eating, and honors your very human need for food.
Imagine how good it will feel not fearing the holidays, and not fixating on the food. Focus on slowing down, listening to your body, and enjoying your food. Spend some time visualizing yourself waking up every day feeling great. Use that desire as something to hook onto during the holiday, to keep you focused on what you want to be, how you want to feel, and how you want to treat your body.