This may sound a little woo-woo—especially because we’re constantly being told that we have to listen to external cues when figuring out what to eat—but I can tell you from my experience as a dietitian that it’s a strategy that has helped people have more peaceful relationships with food in lots of different circumstances. During the holidays, these external cues are at an all-time high. We see the flood of articles, lists of tips, and TV segments talking about how to eat “right” during the holidays: “Swap this for that,” “Go for a run during the day to make space for later,” “Eat salad before heading to that gathering.” It honestly feels like it’s endless.
I want to guide you through an alternative strategy that doesn’t involve restrictions, rules, or regulations on food. There’s no need to approach the holidays (or really any time of the year) with an all-or-nothing mentality. Special diets and complete food overhauls are likely to lead to frustration and feelings of defeat because they’re so hard to maintain over time. Here are four practical tips to keep in mind if you want to eat more intuitively during the holidays.
1. Remember that emotional hunger is a thing and it’s valid.
This goes back to tapping into internal versus external rules when it comes to food. During the holidays there’s so much pressure to restrict or overeat, without much thought about how you’re feeling, either emotionally or in your body. Being able to identify what hunger, fullness, and satisfaction feel like for you can help make eating feel less fraught. If your body is telling you that it wants to eat dessert even though you’re no longer physically hungry—which tends to happen a lot during the holidays—it’s okay to trust that message. There are no set rules, and ultimately you get to decide what satisfaction looks like in that moment.
Also, what you decide to eat at that moment doesn’t reflect what you’re going to be eating at the next meal or for the next year. Food is intimately connected with family, culture, and traditions, and sometimes it’s not as simple as stopping eating because you “ate enough.” Having a slice of grandma’s pumpkin pie, knowing that you’re physically satisfied, can help bring you emotional satisfaction. Emotional hunger is valid too, especially during the holidays.
2. Set some gentle boundaries with loved ones.
Just like it’s okay to say yes, it’s also okay to say no. Do you have that auntie who offers you more food every five minutes? Or that cousin who doesn’t shut up about how little you eat? There’s so much pushiness at the dinner table around the holidays, and you may feel pressured to eat when you truly don’t want to. I totally understand that your loved ones may take on this approach because food is their way of showing love. You can acknowledge that and respond with kindness and compassion. For example, “Thank you so much for making that pie. You know how much I love your cooking, and I feel so satisfied from all the great food you’ve prepared. Is it okay if I pack some to go so I can enjoy it tomorrow?”
The same concept applies to unwanted conversations about your eating habits or weight. We all have that family member who comments about how much weight you’ve gained or lost, or gives unsolicited nutrition advice. This can affect how you enjoy and experience food during the holidays. You can set boundaries by redirecting the conversation: “I would love to hear about how you’re doing. How is the job going?” You can also try being direct (although that’s not comfortable for some people): “I would prefer for you not to comment on my weight or food choices. Let’s talk about something else.”
3. Fasting (or barely eating) so you can eat more later is a trap.
In my experience working with clients, eating less during the day so you can “make room” for the big meal later usually doesn’t go so well. What tends to happen when you restrict is that you eventually go HAM (pun intended) on whatever it was that you were restricting, and then the guilt starts to creep in. In order to make the guilt go away, you try to compensate for all the “damage” you’ve done by working out more than usual, eating salads, or straight-up stressing out. It’s a pretty unpleasant cycle to be caught up in.