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Eight tips to help you ditch holiday eating guilt and embrace intuitive eating

Providence Health Care registered dietitians Hannah Robinson and Ali Eberhardt are passionate about getting rid of guilt and shame around eating. In addition to supporting clients in the Eating Disorders Program at St. Paul’s Hospital, Hannah and Ali are the brains and voices behind a popular podcast dedicated to ditching diet culture called Let Us Eat Cake.

The holidays can be an overwhelming and emotional time – especially as we’re approaching our second holiday in a pandemic. While our gatherings may be smaller in size this year, food choices at the holiday table remain plentiful. We asked Hannah and Ali for evidence-based nutrition tips for dodging holiday season diet triggers so you can have your Christmas dessert and enjoy it, too.

Don’t “save room” for a big holiday meal

There’s an idea in our culture that if there’s a big meal coming up, then it makes sense to cut back through the day to compensate for indulging later on. Christmas Day, in particular, is a day where this really gets amplified. Although it’s a common practice, it’s also a self fulfilling prophecy:

“When you go into that meal feeling totally deprived, you are probably going to eat way more,” says Hannah. “That’s going to feel uncomfortable not only physically, but it’s also uncomfortable emotionally and psychologically as well, because you may start to feel like you’re out of control.”

A better option is sticking to eating meals and snacks regularly throughout the day leading up to a holiday meal. Fueling your body adequately and consistently in advance of holiday meals can help you feel more calm and present. You’ll also be able to choose foods that you enjoy and satisfy you instead of eating in response to extreme hunger.

A vegetable is a vegetable is a vegetable

Sometimes clients worry that they won’t know how to categorize rich foods that they see at a holiday meal, like stuffing, or vegetables cooked in butter or gravy. But in order to simplify things with the portioning process, Ali and Hannah suggest treating them the same. So while a slice of bread and half a cup of stuffing and a half a cup of potatoes might be different calorically, the calorie difference between these different options is never going to be significant enough that it would have any meaningful impact on your weight, your shape, your body or your health, especially when we’re talking about holiday foods that we eat infrequently.

“We tend to get into really dangerous position where we start changing our portions depending on the calories, and that’s because we start to look at it in terms of numbers and not in terms of food,” says Ali. “Our body doesn’t digest stuffing differently than Christmas cookies, or differently than yams. Your body isn’t going to think, ‘Oh, if only that glucose had come from yam instead of this Christmas cookie, we would have used that fuel for something good but instead we must use it for weight gain.’ That’s just not how our bodies work.”

Embrace holiday traditions and food that make you feel good

So when we oversimplify the food we eat to being just calories in and calories out, we don’t give enough value to the fact that we need to eat for our enjoyment, too.

“If you have a peppermint mocha, your body isn’t going to all of a sudden gain weight,” says Hannah. “Our body is actually doing a lot of other things outside of just maintaining our weight, so when we over simplify, we undervalue what our body actually does.”

If you’re just getting satisfied by food depending on the calories alone, then all of your attention is going to be on that; but if you get satisfaction from the enjoyment of being with people that you love and having a seasonal beverage that you enjoy, it’s going to be way more satisfying. There’s value in having something that leaves you feeling nostalgic and festive.

Make “peace” with your plate

An easy way to portion your plate is to break it up into a peace sign, so a third of your plate is something carbohydrate or grain containing, a third of your plate is things that are protein containing, and a third of your plate is fruits and vegetable containing.

“Even if it’s a really small appetizer-size plate, you can do that a couple of times, then have a dessert and you’re almost guaranteed to meet what you typically would need for a dinner,” says Ali.

Later on at your next snack, whether that’s your afternoon snack or your bedtime snack, you can react depending on how you feel. Maybe you feel a little bit hungrier than usual and you didn’t get as much food as you needed, so then you can react and choose something a little denser for that snack. Or maybe you feel fully satisfied, so you can pick something lighter to snack on if you need it.

Ditch the 30-day post-holiday cleanse

There’s something about January 1st where people feel like a reset button has been hit and there’s pressure to do things differently by starting on a new diet plan or 30-day challenge. There is research that shows just that gyms, athletic facilities and diet companies make the bulk of their money for the year in the month of January.

Although gym plans and diets may result in short term changes to body weight or shape or fitness, we have an overwhelming body of evidence that shows up to 97% of people will gain this weight back in 2-5 years. 

“But remember that in the long term, if these are things that you already don’t have incorporated into your lifestyle or things that you just can’t stick with for longer than 30 days, then it’s not going to work for you,” says Hannah.

Focus on a behaviour, not an outcome

If you want to change something, you need to change a behavior. You cannot change an outcome.

“Often when people talk about New Years resolutions, losing weight comes up as a goal,” says Ali. “But as it turns out, weight is not a behavior. Weight is an outcome. And so if we keep focusing on changing an outcome, we’re not actually focusing on anything that can sustain that outcome over time.”

There are behaviors that you can work on that will lead you to a healthier outcome. But the first thing to consider is, what does healthy actually mean to you? If it means making your own meals more and eating out less, then those are behaviors you can work on. There might be a health outcome from it and that’s great, but by focusing on the behaviour, it’s way more in your control and so the likelihood of success is higher.

Focus on daily goals

Think about what’s important to you in the short term that will help you build skills that will help you reach your goals.

“Ask yourself what the end goal is and try breaking it down backwards,” says Hannah. “We’re not going to achieve success overnight, so what are some daily or weekly goals that you can focus on that will help lead you down that path?”

When we focus small goals, daily intentions and daily experiences, then every accomplishment along the way becomes part of the immediate reward.

Add rather than restrict

You can’t ‘do’ a ‘don’t’. Some New Years resolutions focus on eliminating things from your life or diet, but the reality is that that approach can be harder to stick to. It can be a lot more rewarding and achievable if you focus instead on what you can add.

If you’re looking to become healthier, what are some foods that you can add in? Does that mean adding in different vegetable a day? Does it look like adding in a different type of grain or carbohydrate source?

“Always ask yourself if there something you can add to help get you to that outcome versus just focusing on the things you need to take away, which can feel like deprivation and not be sustainable,” says Ali.

St. Paul’s Hospital registered dietitians Hannah Robinson and Ali Eberhardt

For more tips and talk on holiday eating, watch for the next episode of the Let Us Eat Cake podcast launching December 23, 2021.