Yes, You Can Enjoy Your Favorite Holiday Food without Guilt!
Do you spend your holidays stressing about food?
There’s lots of fear during the holiday season. The traditional advice we get around holiday food is that we need to be careful around special holiday foods because if we aren’t, we will gain weight and harm our health.
But with restrictions, we miss out on a lot of the fun.
Is calorie counting and skipping meals any way to spend holidays of thanks and celebration? I don’t think so!
Fortunately, there is a better way! As a registered dietitian, I firmly believe that there is room for nourishment AND fun.
In this blog post, I’ll share exactly how to enjoy your holiday food without guilt.
The risks of food restrictions around the holidays
People restrict foods around the holidays (and year-round) for a lot of reasons. They are well-meaning, but these restrictions tend to do much more harm than good.
Restricting holiday foods sets us up to:
- skip meals,
- avoid holiday rituals that involve food,
- eat bland and boring foods so we can stay within a prescribed diet,
- stress out about enjoying holiday foods, and
- generally feel guilty for 6 weeks of the year!
All of this guilt around holiday foods makes us miss out on special time with our loved ones. At the end of the holiday season, we will have had a lot LESS special time with our loved ones.
How to enjoy your holiday foods without guilt
I’m here to tell you that you can enjoy the holidays, spending time with friends and family and enjoying your favorite foods, all while feeling good in your body.
The biggest reasons that we have guilt around holiday foods are that we are labeling these foods as “bad”, are feeling hectic and spread way too thin, and we are changing our normal routines (and doing things like skipping meals). When you skip your regular meals, your body might make you eat past fullness, leaving you feeling stuffed and sluggish.
What to do instead?
Here are my suggestions to help you enjoy your holiday treats without guilt:
1. Eat regular meals.
All too often, we stop eating regular meals during the holiday season. Perhaps it’s because we want to “save up” for treats, or maybe we are just too busy that taking time for a meal feels like a luxury we can’t afford.
Trust me, skipping meals is the fastest way to send your energy plummeting and having your hand in a bag of chips while you’re driving home.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with eating chips! It’s just that we usually don’t have the best experience when we eat them when we are both ravenous and distracted. This tends to be a recipe for eating past fullness and then not feeling physically well afterwards.)
The stresses of the holidays can make you feel like you’re on a hamster wheel. I know it can be hard to take a break to eat. To help you feel good during the holiday season I recommend that you:
- Eat at least 3 times a day,
- Plan each meal or snack with 3 different food groups,
- Avoid going more than 4 hours between meals, and
- If you have a day where you eat until you are uncomfortably full, continue to eat regular meals the next day.
These tips will help you feel better and enjoy your treats even more because you won’t be so ravenous that you eat them mindlessly.
If you want to know more about meal and snack planning (including some quick and easy ideas), read my article, How to Stop Obsessing Over Food: 3 Smart Nutrition Ideas.
2. Stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad.”
Our words really matter and that’s also true when it comes to our food talk.
Our culture constantly separates food into different categories (“good” and “bad”). Unfortunately, these labels strongly affect our enjoyment and satisfaction.
One of my favorite studies* compared hunger hormones based on the labeled calorie content of two (actually identical) milkshakes. In this study, one cup was labeled Indulgence, 600 calories, while the other was labeled Sensishake, 160 calories. In fact, the contents of both cups were exactly the same, containing 300 calories.
The researchers then measured the levels of a hormone called ghrelin which is involved in hunger and satiety. Typically, after a substantial meal, ghrelin levels will drop.
In this study, if ghrelin levels were only based on the nutrient content of a meal, then we should have expected the ghrelin levels to be the same after drinking the shakes since they were exactly the same.
However, the ghrelin levels dropped 3 times lower after participants drank the Indulgence shake. And they remained the same after the Sensishake!
This study demonstrated that satiety can be affected by our thoughts about food.
Next, let’s explore how our mindset impacts satisfaction a bit more.
3. Practice nonjudgmental mindfulness when you eat.
A lot of our favorite holiday dishes tend to fall into the “unhealthy” category if we are in a space of plunking our food into “good” or “bad” options.
Beyond the ghrelin example we just went over, when we think of foods as “unhealthy,” we often eat them in a way that limits our satisfaction.
I’ll explain: think of an experience you had where you ate a food you believed was “bad” for you.
- Did you eat it in a way that was kind towards yourself, and let you enjoy the smells, the tastes, and allowed you to linger on each bite?
- Or did you stand at the counter, eat while driving, or eat it straight out of the packaging as quickly as you could?
For many people who are on diets, their eating behavior around “unhealthy” foods is really different…and this behavior limits their satisfaction in a big way.
If we can change our mindset and behaviors, we can fully enjoy the food and get satisfaction from it. It also allows us to eat to a level of pleasant fullness, instead of the discomfort that comes from a binge.
How can you practice nonjudgmental mindfulness? I recommend that you:
- Notice the thoughts you have before eating a particular food. If the thoughts are negative, try to reframe them and remind yourself that all foods can be part of a healthy way of eating.
- Put the food on a plate or in a bowl and sit down to eat it.
- As you eat, pay attention to the smell, flavors, and textures of the food.
- Eat as much as you want and remind yourself that you can enjoy it again. This avoids a last-supper mentality!
- Notice how your body feels when you eat. Do you feel pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? No need to judge here – just notice.
A journal or a note in your phone can be a great way to reflect on these.
4. Practice self-kindness.
Even when we have the best intentions to eat with mindfulness, no one has a perfect track record. We will all eat past fullness sometimes (even me!). Instead of sinking into a shame spiral, remind yourself that all humans do this from time to time and there’s nothing wrong with it!
Even an uncomfortable stomachache will go away as your body digests the food.
Instead of having unkind thoughts about yourself, you might thank your body for sending you such a strong signal that you’ve had enough food.
However, when we beat ourselves up it makes it really hard to learn. Instead, can you try to speak to yourself like you would a loved one? This form of self-nurturing can help you understand some reasons why you might choose to eat past fullness.
I recommend that you create some self-kindness mantras and begin to use them every day. I’ve created a free PDF of Self-Kindness Mantras To Soothe Yourself This Holiday Season. Download yours today!
I’ve designed this tool to help you as you head into the holiday season.
5. Schedule 10 minutes of me time every day.
Let’s face it: the holiday season gets very busy. Whether it’s an increased social calendar or extra family demands, taking time for ourselves gets harder in November and December.
In the many years I’ve been working as an Intuitive Eating dietitian, there is a common thread: As our self-care time decreases, it’s common to experience our food intake feeling a bit “off.”
For those of us who grew up using food for comfort (raising my hand here!), food can step into that role again. I’m definitely not saying all emotional eating is bad! But, when our usual rhythm is off, we can find ourselves trying to use food to fill emotional needs that it can’t. That can make us feel drained because we also stop eating regular meals!
One important antidote for this is to find 10 minutes a day to do something for yourself. I can hear the potential objections, “I don’t have time for that!”. But, I would like to challenge your thinking here: Is it possible that you spend 10 minutes a day scrolling Instagram or Facebook?
Me time isn’t necessarily bubble baths and manicures either! Some of my favorites are:
- Sitting down to eat a meal
- Reading a book
- Listening to a favorite podcast
- Engaging in a hobby (I’ve been knitting a lot lately)
The benefit to this me time is that it can help you choose your holiday treats when you really want them, not when you actually want to call a friend for comfort! And that will make your body feel good in the end.
In our wellness-obsessed culture, it’s so common to experience guilt around our favorite holiday foods. But that just makes our holidays less enjoyable and deprives us of fully enjoying our food and our loved ones.
You don’t need a permission slip, but if having one from a dietitian helps, here it goes: You’re allowed to eat any food, any time.
Are you tired of the guilt and shame ruining your holidays? Schedule a complimentary call with me to find out what your life could be like without the holiday food guilt.
Here’s what a few of my clients say about our work together:
“You have to be willing to put in the work and effort to heal your relationship with food, but if you are willing, Kelly is the best guide to help you on this journey.” – R.M.
“Prior to working with Kelly, I felt like food controlled me. It was one of the few places in my life that I felt out of control. I started diet after diet for nearly 30 years. I would lose, then gain more. I couldn’t stop eating. I can now trust my body to tell me if I’m hungry or not. Who knew I could tell that?!!? I can also notice when I am stress/bored/tired eating.” -M.S.
“I notice a more relaxed feeling about foods l used to avoid or restrict. I can now have a particular food and move on. I do not diet and I do not restrict anything. I found that when I allowed myself previously forbidden foods, their allure lessened.” -Heather D.
*Crum AJ, Corbin WR, Brownell KD, Salovey P. Mind over milkshakes: mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychol. 2011 Jul;30(4):424-9; discussion 430-1. doi: 10.1037/a0023467. PMID: 21574706.
Kelly Abramson MS, RD is a dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor who works with clients in Alexandria, VA and virtually via telehealth. She guides women as they break free from dieting to find joy in food and their bodies. Kelly blogs regularly at NpowerYou.com and has created a free e-book for download, “7 Steps to Overcome Stress Eating.”