On paper, the holiday and holiday eating are supposed to be full of happiness, celebration, and cheer. Unfortunately, they can also be a minefield of food anxiety and harmful nutrition myths that can be difficult to navigate while you’re trying to enjoy the season. When you’re faced with literally months of parties, dinners, and food everywhere, while also being blasted with all kinds of nutrition advice (most of which is aimed at preventing weight gain) it’s hard to know how to cope. The last thing I want for you—and that you want for yourself, probably—is to be miserable through the holidays because you’re obsessing over every bit of food that passes through your lips. Being super strict about what you eat can also undermine your best efforts stick to a rigid eating plan, since it can lead you to just want those "forbidden" foods even more.
I’m here to give you some of best recommendations about some of the worst nutrition myths that pop up between November and January, so you can truly enjoy the holidays.
1. Myth: Banking calories is the best way to offset overeating later in the day.
Sure, if you want to be hangry all day, ravenous at the party later, and super stressed out about every single thing you eat! Funny enough, when I was in nutrition school, calorie banking—basically skipping meals or undereating before a meal you know was going to be a biggie—was a common recommendation for preventing weight gain. Now, we know better! Instead of starving yourself to prepare for a party, just eat as you normally would beforehand. By not being super hungry when you arrive at your dinner or event, you’ll be less likely to eat past the point of fullness and enjoyment and less likely to engage in an all or nothing mindset. Plus, we all deserve to feel at peace with food we are eating, have eaten, and are going to eat. The banking calories mindset feeds into a cycle of obsessing about calories and takes away from the joy of food and of the season. You will enjoy life and food way more if you cultivate a less rigid and calorie-focused attitude toward eating.
2. Myth: You should forego your usual workouts in favor of some hardcore holiday shopping, which burns calories.
Around this time of year I see lots of posts and headlines about how you should ditch your usual workout routine because you're probably super busy and holiday shopping burns calories. And, hey, sure, shopping will help you get your steps in. But rushing around in a crowded mall trying to get stuff done on deadline, maybe stressing about money all the while isn't good for your emotional state. Exercise can be as good for your mental state as it is for your body (if you let it). Beyond that, exercise isn't just about the calorie burn. It's about taking time for yourself to move your body regardless of the potential calorie burn.
For lots of people (myself included) my workouts relieve stress and keep me grounded. The last thing I want to do is give that up during the most stressful time of year. Give yourself the gift of keeping your sanity-saving workouts on the schedule throughout the season. Schedule them in advance so you’ll be able to plan around them, and seriously, take that time for you. With all the holiday chaos, you’ll need it. By the way: Notice that I'm not encouraging you to work out so you can "burn off” all of the holiday food you’ve eaten. That’s because calorie burn is way more complex than a simple math equation. And most importantly, thinking that you have to earn food with exercise or punish yourself for the food you've eaten by working out does more harm and creates more heartache than anything else. Exercise for overall physical and emotional health and wellness, and not to “offset” whatever you’ve eaten.
3. Myth: Cleansing or drastically cutting calories is the best way to counteract all of that holiday eating you did.
No, no, a thousand times no! Post-holiday cleansing B.S. is going to hit all of our feeds soon, like an avalanche, so please, be prepared look away. Just like exercising to get rid of the calories you took in, restricting food to "make up" for all of your holiday indulgence can eventually cause rebound overeating, which will totally do the opposite thing you intended a cleanse to do in the first place. And also, again, I really can’t say this enough, it feeds into a relationship with food that is hyperfocused on caloric intake, leaving enjoyment, satisfaction, fullness, and our emotional and cultural relationships with food totally out of the picture.
Enjoy the special and delicious foods and festive meals that are the hallmark of the holiday season. In my experience, clients who go into the holidays knowing that they’re going to eat more and richer food than usual and (look forward to that!) don’t start the new year feeling like they need to undo any damage. They eat what they want and leave the rest. And then the holidays are over, they’re back to their usual, less-than-festive foods. You don’t need that "kick-start" cleanse that does nothing but starve you, and remember, your body cleanses itself!
4. Myth: Replace higher-carb and calorie foods with low-cal alternatives.
These swaps—like cauliflower mashed "potatoes" and cauliflower "rice"— may help decrease calories somewhat but they also also make the foods you love and look forward to at the holidays less satisfying. How many times a year do you actually get to eat your mom’s mashed potatoes, pecan pie, or stuffing with gravy, or that one super rich thing your uncle makes once a year? There is nothing wrong with enjoying foods you love. Guilt and food don’t ever play nice. It’s true that over the course of the holidays you may have the opportunity to eat these things more than once, but wouldn’t you rather enjoy the real thing instead of a less-satisfying facsimile? Here’s my suggestion: Eat what you want and enjoy the shit out of it. Also: Leave cauliflower out of potatoes.
Keep these myths in mind as the holidays approach and try as best you can to ignore the weight-focused messaging around the holidays (and all year round, honestly). If you're feeling stressed out or anxious about food and eating during the holidays and are having a hard time feeling grounded and relaxed about meals, consider talking to a registered dietitian or mental health professional who can work with you.