This post was originally published on December 16, 2015, and updated on December 9, 2019.
Ah, the holidays – when people let their guard down around food. For many, it’s like a weeks-long “cheat day,” where the assumption is that this time of year is a wash, and you should just start fresh on January 1st. (Or January 2nd, because – you know – New Year’s brunch.)
When you talk to friends or browse through social media, it seems to be a given that people are defenseless against the holiday buffet.
For some people, the holiday feeding frenzy starts as early as Halloween.
What if it didn’t have to be this way? What if the holiday season didn’t feel like all you can do is roll over and let the waves of fudge and eggnog wash over you?
It can be different.
During the holiday season, there’s no end to TV shows, blogs, Instagram posts, and magazines providing tips to help you stay disciplined about food during the holiday season. (While on the opposite page there’s a recipe for something that calls for a pound of butter.)
These tips are intended to help. Unfortunately, the assumptions underlying most holiday advice are rooted in a diet mindset. This keeps you in a place where food has the power. You will probably still have a love-hate relationship with food, and beat yourself up if you eat more than you planned.
Deconstructing Diet Culture Food Tips
Here are some typical holiday tips you are likely to see that may seem sensible, but are steeped in diet culture. Sometimes it is not so much the behavior itself, but the “come from” that makes all the difference.
Tip #1. Don’t go to the party hungry. You should eat before you go to a party so you don’t overeat.
I agree with this (Surprise!) on the surface – BUT for a different reason. When you let yourself get too hungry, your body pulls out its own agenda. If you have ever been super hungry, and then feel like you can’t control how much you eat when you get the chance, it’s not your imagination. Nourishing yourself with regular meals gives you the opportunity to survey the buffet table and choose what you’d like, instead of inhaling the first thing you see.
Tip #2: Fill your plate with lower calorie items, then you can splurge on richer foods.
This sets up a hierarchy of food, with some foods being “good” while others are “bad.” Just having the categorization makes you want more of what you “shouldn’t” have. The most likely outcome of this rule? That you will fill up on crudités and lighter foods first. You feel full in your tummy, but not satisfied. Then you will eat as much of the “splurge” foods as you would have if you’d served yourself those first. On the other hand, when you eat intuitively, you are unlikely to eat huge portions of even very rich foods. You are aware that each bite of a food brings you less pleasure, so you are satisfied with less of it than if you are stuck in a diet mindset.
Tip #3. Increase exercise before and during the holidays to counteract holiday indulgences.
Although exercise is great, the diet culture goal is to work off calories or justify eating. Unfortunately, you can’t afford to lose and regain weight. Yo-yoing weight has been demonstrated to increase inflammation, which is definitely not a good thing. This tip also assumes that you will automatically overeat and gain weight during the holidays. This doesn’t have to be the case at all. It is a great idea to get in some regular movement, even if your holiday schedule is hectic. It doesn’t have to mean a two-hour trek to the gym. Taking a walk or dancing around your living room counts.
Rather than think of exercise as punishment or to counter “sinful” foods, just enjoy the other benefits of activity. This includes better sleep and feeling calmer. You’ll appreciate a little extra Zen when Uncle Joe has a few too many hot toddies and dances on the buffet table.
Tip #4. Take three bites of a treat and walk away.
Are they crazy? From a diet culture belief system, this rule is set up to help you “outsmart” yourself. It assumes that you have to set up external constraints to manage your appetite. It is highly likely to backfire, though, because it comes from a deprivation mindset. In contrast, when you come from a mindful place, you are more likely to feel satisfied – because you will be aware that each bite gives a little less pleasure than the bite before it. So after three bites, you might just feel like walking away on your own. But if you still want three (or twenty) more bites, go ahead and enjoy it.
Tip #5. Ask yourself how something will impact your health long term before you eat it.
When you are standing at a holiday buffet table, this tip can be useful – as long as you are not using it in a way that categorizes foods as good/bad. From a big-picture view of health, nutrition is definitely a factor. But it’s just one! For a food to impact your health long term, it will take far more than a holiday party – or even the whole season – to make a difference. If a food is calling you but you don’t take some because it you don’t think it is nutritious, you are just setting yourself up to overeat later.