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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
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Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Enjoy Guilt-Free Holiday Eating


July 09, 2013


By Emily Garber, R.D.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Life during the holiday season can be filled with endless temptations: dazzling buffets, rich hot cocoa, Christmas cookies...and seemingly endless leftovers. Not everyone finds the feasting easy to enjoy. If you're like many people whose efforts to eat healthier this year have paid off in feeling better and dropping some excess pounds, making wise food choices at the buffet table can be challenging and frustrating.

When faced with so many enticing flavors, do you say to yourself, "It's a holiday after all – shouldn't I be able to let loose and enjoy myself?" Or, are you inclined to rein yourself in and say, "Do I really want to blow it just because I'm at a party?"

But you don't have to walk away from the table stuffed with feelings of guilt or deprivation. Figure out which type of social eater you are by picking the statement below that sounds most like you. Then try the tailor-made party tips that follow.

Eager: When invited to a party, you jump at the excuse to "break your diet" and go all-out, eating the variety of delicious foods that are served, thinking, "I can indulge...it's a special occasion!"

Antisocial: The thought of going to another party makes your insides crawl – "not more smiling people" – the only attraction is the free food, so you might as well treat yourself and eat a lot to make the most of that one benefit of being there.

Pleaser: Even though you want to eat healthfully, relationships and feeling part of the group are more important to you than making healthy choices at the party so you end up eating whatever you're offered to avoid offending anyone.

Embarrassed: Whenever you're at a party it feels like all eyes are on you watching what and how much you eat – you would rather take what everyone else is than stand out as being "on a diet" and risk getting comments on it.

Balanced: You eat well most of the time and usually pass on getting seconds or dessert...but hey, after all, this is a special occasion and one day of indulgence can't be much of a set-back!

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Party Tips:

Eager: You're right that you should be able to live a little and enjoy the party! Though you may want to consider these ideas when deciding how much is enough:

  • You certainly don't want to miss out on those special holiday foods, but could you pass on taking seconds, or choose your two favorite cookies instead of four without feeling deprived? Savor every bite and enjoy things in moderation this season ... guilt-free!

 

  • If there are certain foods that you really love and don't want to miss – like those creamy mashed potatoes or the dessert that's just calling your name – then limit ordinary foods like corn or a dinner roll to save calories where you won't miss them.

 

  • While there's room for a little holiday splurge, avoid continuing that with leftovers – freeze or give them away to help limit overeating. Try to get back into healthy eating patterns the next day and you won't let the party become a set-back.

Antisocial: Sounds like you'd rather not be at the party to begin with. But if you're there and do want to eat healthfully, you can try the suggestions for Eager along with these:

  • If you're not sure whether you want to limit yourself at all, take a moment to consider this: Food might be the one thing at the party that isn't going to annoy you and might even make you glad to be there. But how will you feel afterwards if you overeat? Does indulging really help you feel any happier? Or does it just cover up other feelings inside?

 

  • Think of a more positive solution for dealing with being at the party than through overeating, such as helping the host set-up or clean up. You could even take along a book or an activity you'd enjoy that does not have to involve the people you'd rather avoid...or who knows, maybe you'll even be pleasantly surprised by the event if you join in the festivities!

Pleaser: You don't like to make a scene or offend anyone by turning down food they put time into making, even when you'd rather not eat it, because you don't feel comfortable making your own needs a priority. The good news is that you can do what's right for you while also helping others feel happy.

  • Rather than saying "No thank you." if you don't like to turn down an offer, try saying, "Thanks, that looks delicious, but I'm full." No one will take statements like that the wrong way, and you will still be able to make the healthy choices you want. You could also use the suggestions for Eager.

Embarrassed: It can be hard to make the right decisions when you're concerned about other people's comments on what you eat.

  • Keep in mind though that making healthy choices doesn't need to stand out; many people will be taking moderate portions.

 

  • It's normal to say "No thank you" or "I'm full" when offered something. Besides, there will be so many things going on that it's doubtful anyone will notice or remember what you ate or drank. Try it and do the right thing for yourself!

 

  • You could also use the suggestions for Eager.

Balanced: Your day-to-day efforts to make the right choices have been paying off – you're feeling healthier and you can easily enjoy things on special occasions since you're on track to reach your health goals. You might still want to use some of the suggestions given to Eager, but most important is just getting back into your regular routine after the holiday. Congratulations on an overall healthy lifestyle!

Here are some other useful tips no matter which approach you try:

  • Use a small plate (if available) and when you put food on it, try to avoid stacking it high; leave white space between each item on the plate for simple portion-control.

 

  • Either eat or talk; take a break between eating to socialize and try to avoid doing both at the same time. It distracts you from really enjoying what you're eating and often traps you into eating more than you intended.

 

  • Most of all, enjoy the party! Eat slowly and savor the flavor of each bite to get the most satisfaction from what you are eating. Remember, you don't need to eat a large amount to enjoy good food with the people you're celebrating with.

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Emily Garber, RD is a dietitian in the Nutrition Consultation Service at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She is a graduate of Bastyr University in Seattle, where she developed an appreciation for a holistic approach to wellness. She completed her dietetic internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

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