A Dietitian’s Tips for Making the Most of Holiday Eating

The holidays can sometimes feel like a diet disaster. For some, even thinking about all of the tasty food the Christmas season brings can stir up all kinds of negative feelings, sending anxiety and send stress levels through the roof. Between the Christmas parties, baking, and boxes of treats taking up just about every visible surface at our work places, it can make us feel a bit “out of control”. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way…

What if instead of seeing the holiday season as a battleground between our taste buds and our waistline, we could see it for what’s it’s really meant to be? A FUN, and ENJOYABLE time of year where we get to spend time with the people we care about? And yes, a time of year where we may choose to eat some delicious and exciting things we don’t typically have throughout the rest of the year.

There are many conflicting ideas on the best strategies for “surviving” the holidays. A lot of articles and social media pages out there will encourage just using iron-clad willpower to manage holiday eating (just say no, or even avoid social events completely), or suggest that you should “save up” calories by fasting throughout the day or week in preparation for a great big holiday meal. Some may also recommend restricting portions in the days following a meal to make up for any overeating. I’m going to do none of those things. Those strategies just aren’t that effective! I mean, you’ve probably tried them before yourself and how did that go? These types of mindsets are going to do more harm than good when it comes to your relationship with food going forward, and can really detract from the overall enjoyment of the holidays. And holidays are supposed to be FUN right? You’re also doing more harm than good to your metabolism when you do prolonged bouts of extreme calorie restriction or fasting (like in the 2-3 days leading up to a family dinner). Furthermore, isolating yourself socially by simply not attending any events where there might be food is not a great strategy for promoting good mental health either. Depriving yourself is likely to lead to a food binge, because the more we tell ourselves we can’t have something, the more we want it! Trying to restrict food intake leading up to a big holiday meal can be equally as detrimental, because who feels good physically or mentally after they overeat? We often feel guilty for going overboard, which leads to more restriction, which leads to more bingeing, and a vicious cycle.

So, as a Dietitian who helps clients break out of the cycle of dieting and find a more positive and peaceful relationship with food, here are some of my tips for actually enjoying yourself this holiday season…


Tip # 1: Self Care

The holidays can be a difficult time of year for a number of reasons. The preparation can seem overwhelming and having to do the shopping, baking, hosting, and clean-up can just feel like a chore. Plus, it’s dark all the fricken’ time so who has any energy left at the end of the day? For others the holiday food itself may not be the issue, it’s diet talk around the dinner table, or unwanted comments about body weight or size. When you’re trying to avoid getting sucked into the latest fad, it can be difficult to listen to others go on about their latest diet and how amazing they feel.

Remember: It’s ok to change the subject, or ask family and friends to avoid diet talk/weight talk when you’re at social gatherings. If the conversations continue despite your request, remove yourself to go sit at the kid’s table- it’s more fun over there anyway. 

If the pressure of the season is getting to you, or you’re feeling anxious about comments or conversations around the dinner table, make self-care a priority this year. Self care can be anything you want it to be, it just needs to make you feel better and relieve some stress. For some people it’s reading a book, for others it might be a yoga class, or maybe going for a manicure or taking a bubble bath or meditating, or going for coffee with a friend. If possible, delegate a little too to take some tasks off your plate if you feel like you have too much to do and too little time.

This year, remember to save a little time and energy for looking after yourself too!


Tip #2: Use The Hunger Scale

This is a skill that I encourage my clients to use all year-round, not just when it comes to holiday eating. Haven’t heard of the hunger scale? It’s a 10-point scale to help you assess your hunger and fullness. It helps us figure how much we need eat, without needing to measure portion sizes or worry about tracking what we eat. Measuring portion sizes or tracking our calorie intake on apps is a tool that some people find really helpful, but there are always situations that can make measuring or tracking really difficult- and the holidays are a prime example. You’re eating a lot of different items, most of which you didn’t prepare so it’s hard to track these meals accurately which makes tracking them at all pretty useless. You’re also eating away from home more often, which means you certainly aren’t going to have your food scale or measuring cups handy for measuring portion sizes. Rather than throwing up our hands and feeling like a failure, the hunger scale can help us decide how much we need to eat.

Some people will choose to just not worry at all about the meals they can’t measure or track, and that’s fine, but I think the hunger scale is a very useful skill to learn to help us all get more in touch with our bodies and the messages it sends us.

What exactly is the hunger scale? Check it out below!

Image result for the hunger scale

At one time or anther we’ve all been at all ends of the hunger scale. What we want to do is avoid getting past a 6 or 7 in most food situations. This means we’re enjoying all of the amazing food life has to offer us, but we’re not eating so much of it that we’re uncomfortably stuffed.

I like using the hunger scale because it helps us practice listening to our bodies when it comes to regulating how much we eat. When there is an abundance of food around it is easy to let all of that portion control stuff go out the window, and no one should be expected to bring their food scale to a holiday dinner.

My Advice? Before you start eating, take a second and think: Am I hungry? If the answer is no, try to put some distance between yourself and the snacks. If the answer is yes, practice figuring out where you are on the hunger scale. Eat slowly and think about where you are on the hunger scale as you eat your meal. Stop eating when you’re satisfied, not when you’re stuffed (around a 6 or a 7). It takes practice to do this well, but it’s worth it!


Tip #3. Pick Your Favorite Foods

Sometimes at events where the buffet is massive we can fill our plate on autopilot without really looking at what’s available. Next thing you know we’ve run out of space for dessert! Unfortunately our stomach only has so much space available before we start to get to the upper end of the hunger scale. Feeling uncomfortably stuffed isn’t particularly enjoyable, so why waste that precious stomach real estate on food you don’t even like? Sometimes we do it because we don’t want to hurt feelings. And I totally get that, but is pleasing someone else worth ignoring your own body’s signals? In most of our families, food equals love and it can lead to awkward conversations around the dinner table when we refuse second helpings or didn’t try someone’s special homemade dish. But we can’t live our lives always trying to please others before ourselves. We’re also far more likely to overeat if we’re finishing our plate just to avoid wasting food.

My Advice? Before filling your plate, take a scan of the options and pick out the things you definitely want to try. Don’t waste plate space on things you really don’t care for. Pick the foods that you really love, and especially ones you only get to have on holidays. If you aren’t sure if you’ll like something, just take a teeny tiny serving of it to try. It prevents you from feeling pressured to eat something you don’t enjoy, and cuts down on potential food waste too.

Someone trying to force food on you? “No thank you, I’m full” is usually enough to get them off your back. Occasionally though, the food-pusher is relentless, but don’t cave! Instead, tell them you’re much too full right now, but you’d love to take some home with you for leftovers. Works every time.

Your body is not a garbage can. Is there really a difference between throwing food away vs overeating on something you don’t like just to ‘get rid of it’?  


Tip #4: Keep Moving

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep up with some form of physical activity during this busy time of year. Not only is exercise great for physical health, it also helps us cope with stress and the mental drain that this time of year can bring. The holiday season is hopefully a mostly positive one, but for some Christmas can be very stressful. The short days can also make us feel lower in energy than usual, so a little movement can bring some pep back into our step. So many clients I work with also recognize that in times of stress they turn to food to cope. If we aren’t utilizing other outlets for stress (like movement), and we’re bombarded with our favorite treats all-December long, how can we be expected to not to use food in an unhealthy way?

My Advice? Try to make activity a priority. Maybe it won’t be your usual gym workout if you’re traveling over the holidays, or if your evenings get busier with all the holiday preparations, but every little bit of movement counts. Plan family outings that are more active vs sedentary, or take out your yoga mat for a little alone time when things get hectic. There is no wrong way to move your body!


Tip #5: Be Kind to Yourself 

For people with a very all-or-nothing diet mindset (you know who you are), one “bad” meal can throw them off for the whole month. A Christmas party in late November starts the downward spiral, and the guilt trip doesn’t stop until into the new year. Even thinking about the upcoming events and all the food that will be around can cause a whole cascade of self-directed negativity. This mindset toward food and dieting is so common the whole diet industry basically revolves around our weight loss new year’s resolutions. We’re just so hard on ourselves.

My Advice? Keep doing the basic healthy things no matter the time of year, but don’t beat yourself up when that’s easier said than done. This means that in-between your social events and holiday meals, just stick to the basics of healthy eating that you already know. The black and white way of thinking (You’re either on a diet or completely off it) just adds fuel to the fire of a bad relationship with food. Enjoy the fun times and great food the holidays have to offer, but don’t lose sight of the balance and moderation that is the foundation of a positive food relationship. And most of all, treat yourself with the same kindness you’d extend to your best friend. You’d never tell your best  friend she was a stupid POS for enjoying a naniamo bar would you? So why do it to yourself? 

Treat yourself and your body like a friend rather than an enemy


Remember: The holidays should be a time of celebration, not deprivation, and certainly not self-flagellation. We should all be able to enjoy the amazing array of foods life has to offer without feeling guilty about it, and without needing to obsessively track our calories or measure our portions. Taking a mindful eating approach can help us listen to our hunger cues, stop eating when we’re satisfied, and learn to relate to food in a more positive way. Try it for yourself this holidays season!


About the Author:

Stephanie Hnatiuk is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She believes good health doesn’t need to be complicated, and that you don’t need to be afraid have your cake and eat it too.

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