Enjoying a Healthy Thanksgiving
The Dilemma of Dieting
Over the last week, I have given the same advice for Thanksgiving so many times that it is almost reached the level of a memorized speech. In other words – time for a new blog post!
The holidays can be tough for people who struggle with their weight or have weight loss goals. There are equally strong pressures to (1) be mindful about their eating to optimize weight, but also to simultaneously (2) not be a killjoy and actually enjoy the holidays with their loved ones. It can be a challenge to juggle these two motives and be in good relationship with yourself as well as with others.
The other aspect of the holidays that may be difficult for some to negotiate in terms of nutrition is the total loss of routine. For people who thrive on a schedule, the undirected and unstructured pace of the holidays can be a challenge.
I was on the train yesterday, and I overheard two of the male conductors chatting about their weight loss efforts (apparently there is a medical physical that they must pass for the job). One man mentioned that he was recently started dieting, and that his wife was actually upset with him that he had chosen the week before Thanksgiving to start dieting. “What am I supposed to do with all these desserts?” she said. “I didn’t tell you to make them!” was his reply.
Obviously, this dynamic can create both external and internal conflict! It’s a common problem.
If you are working on weight loss goals, here are four important reality checks before we get to the “tips and tricks” part:
- Holiday calories do count.
- One week of extremely mindless, out-of-control overeating can un-do a lot (possibly weeks or months) of hard work.
- Holiday overeating can create a “binge-restrict” cycle of “diet starts on Monday… or maybe January 1.”
- It may be more sensible to plan on weight maintenance than weight loss over the holidays.
The refreshing reality is that eating well and losing weight is possible without dieting. This is just as true for the holidays as it is at any other time of year.
Here are six interconnected tips that I use with clients (and with myself!) to create mindful, enjoyable eating over the holidays without excess.
Pick your true favorites and truly savor them.
Maybe you have a holiday treat that you couldn’t imagine declining. Unless you have been medically counseled to totally give up sugar (or something similar), there is no harm in truly relishing your favorite holiday food traditions. The flip side is that I encourage you to decline the things you don’t really love. Those weird gingerbread cookies that your cousin makes? Don’t eat 14 of them while waiting for dinner to start.
Please note – “relishing” your favorites is not the same as binging. This leads to my next point:
Practice portion control.
While easier said than done, it is possible for you to serve yourself on limited plate and enjoy a little bit of all of your favorites (and make sure to include at least one or two vegetables!). If there are many offerings on the Thanksgiving table, try to pick smaller portions than you even think is necessary – you will be surprised at how much six courses add up in terms of volume!
Try to do all of your eating sitting down with a plate, one time, which leads to my next point…
This goes back to the “pick your favorites and enjoy them” tip. What you truly love and enjoy is probably not the bowl of nuts or the cheese plate from Costco left out before and after the meal. These kinds of snacks, appealing in their finger-food ease and mindless availability, don’t necessarily make you feel full, but they can pack a powerful caloric punch that just aren’t worth it for the enjoyment they provide.
For me personally (although you could be different), it is easier to never eat snacks like these at all when they are out in the open. For me, as soon as my hand wanders into the bowl, it is going to be difficult to stop, especially if I’m distracted.
Bring a Creative Dish.
You don’t need to do a healthy redux of your aunt’s traditional stuffing recipe. However, it can be fun to bring lighter fare that you know will add to the nutrition and satisfaction of your holiday eating. “Creative” doesn’t necessarily mean low-calorie. It may just be a splash of vegetable color that could supercharge the nutritional value of a mostly beige holiday plate. The fiber in a vegetable-based dish will help you to feel more full for the entire day.
Don’t fast prior to the meal in order to “save up” calories.
The body does funny things that are not mathematically linear. For example, when you fast to “save up” calories for a big meal, it’s not like shutting off a computer that you can turn back on again at the appropriate time. Instead, your body will respond by becoming not just hungrier, but also more preoccupied with food, obsessive about eating, and more attracted to calorie-rich foods – more than you usually are.
My advice is to eat normal portions at every meal on holidays, including the holiday meal itself.
Take breaks if you need them.
Finally, on a slightly different note, don’t underestimate stress eating, which can result from even a low level of social anxiety.
The holidays can be refreshing, fun, festive, celebratory, and intimate. However, they can also be stressful, busy, tiring, draining, and anxiety-inducing, even if only mildly. Sometimes, it’s easier to just keep putting food in your mouth at a family gathering, than to communicate clearly or – what many people need to do but don’t do – take a break.
Be compassionate with yourself. If you find yourself eating or drinking mindlessly at a family gathering, don’t be afraid to excuse yourself to take a breather. Take a walk, take kids to play outside, or just escape for a minute to text a friend or connect with someone in a quiet way.
If you experience strong internal resistance to the idea of moderating your holiday eating, pause to ask:
“What would the holidays be without overeating?”
“What is the food replacing?”
“What am I afraid of missing out on?”
They’re worthwhile questions to ask.
If I can leave one idea with you that I attempt to cultivate in my communication with all of my clients, is this:
Enjoyment and moderation are not mutually exclusive.
Side note: a little exercise goes a long way to improve feelings of motivation, energy, and happiness… but don’t get into tricky math about one hour of jogging equaling a slice of pumpkin pie. Exercise because it makes you feel great, and eat moderately because it makes you feel great, too. Food is not a reward, and exercise is not punishment.