The Holiday Eating Guide You Actually Need

Photographed by Winnie Au.
This week, millions of Americans, will celebrate one of our nation’s oldest and most sacred traditions: standing in Hudson News and reading magazines without paying for them.
That includes me, too. Come Thanksgiving morning, I will be loitering in a newsstand, waiting for my train to be announced, while flipping through the holiday issues of every women’s magazine on the racks. Holiday issues are my favorites, not just because they get me excited for the festivities to come, but also because they are comforting in their familiarity. Every year, you’ve got your glittery eye-makeup tricks, your gift guides full of items you’d actually prefer to buy for yourself, and of course, the wine spritzers. You know — those little party tips reminding you that one tablespoon of eggnog has 80,000 calories, so why not opt for something lighter? Like a white wine spritzer!
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It wouldn’t be the holidays without panic over calories, and thus every holiday issue must, by decree, include pointers on how to cut them out or burn them off. I’m not trying to bash my own industry here, and I give credit where it’s due. We’ve come a long way in women’s media, with some mags banning “bikini body,” and other outlets (like this one) refusing to advocate weight loss or dieting. But there’s something about the holidays that brings out the nostalgic in all of us, for better or worse. Thus, each year, we gather round the newsstands, and read about swapping out stuffing for a nice low-carb, high-fiber squash. It’s tradition.
But some traditions are made to be broken. So, this year, I present to you the anti-diet guide to “holiday eating” (i.e. eating). These are the crucial tips I’ve picked up, designed to help you enjoy the festivities, or at least get through them unscathed. The truth is that eating — like everything else — gets more stressful around the holidays, and we could all use a little support. What we don’t need is more food panic. Here, you’ll find no bullshit, no calorie counts, and no spritzers. Unless you want one.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.
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It’s just dinner.

I’m sure that if I sat down and really thought about it, I could come up with a major holiday that didn’t involve food. But odds are good that, no matter where you’re from or which religion you practice, you will be compelled to sit at a table with your relatives and consume a significant dinner, at least once a year. Food is how we, as humans, celebrate. But an elaborate meal, combined with all that forced togetherness, can create tension all around. See: every Thanksgiving movie ever made.

Faced with that kind of stress, a lot of us tend to take it out on our plates — either piling on the potatoes to spite our mothers, or skipping them entirely so we won’t have to hear any comments from our cousin. That’s not a crime, but it can add more stress to an already stressful situation. Sometimes, the best thing to do is remind yourself that it’s just dinner.

Yes, it’s a holiday meal, and yes, your family is here. On the one hand, this meal is very unusual. On the other, it’s just dinner. In an hour, it’ll be over. You can feel all the feelings that this holiday brings up, while reminding yourself that, in the end, this is just another dinner, and it too shall pass.
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You might be eating differently. But odds are, your body won’t change much.

Anecdotal evidence (and all those magazine articles) make it seem as though it’s a given that people overeat and gain a bunch of weight during the holidays. It sure feels true, but the actual research indicates that it’s not that simple. Quelle surprise, I know!

You could spend a month reading studies on these subjects, but you have 300 cocktail parties to hit this week, so here are the key takeaways to bear in mind: 1. Yes, stress and social settings do seem to affect our eating habits. Some of us respond by eating less and others more, depending on the situation. 2. Overall, we do tend to eat slightly more during holidays, and gain a small amount of weight.

3. But the amount of weight typically gained is much less than we usually estimate ourselves, and much less than the numbers often reported. A team of researchers working on a holiday weight-gain study in 2000 found that people believed they’d gained four times as much weight than they actually had. But why? The researchers also gathered reports from sources, including CNN and the Texas Medical Association, all stating that Americans gained between 5 and 10 pounds during the holidays. “But none offered a credible source for that suggestion,” they wrote. “A literature review failed to identify any clinical research findings supporting the claim of a 5-lb or greater average weight gain over the winter season.” Hmm. Weird.
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You’re allowed to say, “No, thank you.”

This advice comes from Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, one of the authors of Intuitive Eating. I first read it on Tribole’s “Holiday Bill Of Rights” — which I highly recommend reading, and maybe just printing and sticking on your front door for the next month. So much of the social pressure around holiday eating comes from wanting to people-please and be a polite guest. It’s hard enough under normal circumstances to decline food when it’s offered. It’s exponentially harder when your friend is doing the offering, and the food in question is her special, homemade holiday gingerbread balls — or whatever. But if you’ve had enough, you’ve had plenty. As Tribole affirms, “It is not your responsibility to make someone happy by overeating, even if it took hours to prepare a specialty holiday dish.”

It’s not your responsibility to eat anything, period. If you don’t like gingerbread, that’s okay, too! You don’t have to smack the plate out of her hand and storm off. You can just politely decline, and look for something you find more appealing. If she gets offended, well, that’s uncomfortable — but she’s the one making it so. Bottom line, Tribole says: “You have the right to say, ‘No, thank you,’ without explanation.”
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But, let’s be real: You might say, “Okay, sure!”

In a perfect world, your friend would take no offense. She’d just nod, smile knowingly, and move on, taking her plate of gingerbread balls with her. Then you would bask in the glow of your own assertiveness and self-respect; the entire party would stand in awe of this smooth and rational social interaction.

In reality, you might wind up grabbing three gingerbread balls, stuffing them in your face, and then rolling your eyes in make-believe ecstasy, telling your friend they’re so good you LITERALLY canNOT belIEVE it.

This is also completely fine. You are not a failure if you eat something out of politeness. You’re a human. Socializing is not easy for everyone — and for some of us, it takes enormous effort. (Shout out to all my fellow I’s on the Myers-Briggs!) If you can look out for yourself and your own comfort, great. But if she won’t take “no, thank you” for an answer, or if it just seems like less of a headache to eat the gingerbread ball and smile, then fine. Really. This isn’t criminal court, it’s a cocktail party.
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You’re allowed to have stuffing in February.

Food is meant to be satisfying. Enjoyable eating is part of healthy eating. So, there’s nothing wrong with delighting in your favorite holiday foods. But just a reminder: You’re allowed to have stuffing in February. In fact, stuffing is legal in every state, year round. I know!

It’s really easy to get hung up on treat mentality during the holidays, believing that one must load up on all the goods before they vanish, or before it becomes socially unacceptable to eat them. Sure, your office won’t be full of sugar cookies every day in January, and you won’t find stuffing on menus in June. But it’s helpful to remember that, if you really want these things, you can pretty much get them whenever.

Some foods are special (like your dad’s cornbread) or holiday-specific (like latkes) or seasonal (like that godforsaken Pumpkin Spice Latte). No one would fault you for getting excited about those things or overdoing it a little, because they are a rare occurrence. But if you find yourself nervously eyeing the platter to make sure no one’s taking the last latke, just remember that it’s not the last latke on planet earth. Do you want it? Cool, have it! Are you super full but determined to eat it because part of your brain believes this is your last chance at latkes for another year? Take a breath.

Worst-case scenario, you can make your own latkes at home. (Do you have a potato and an egg in the fridge? Here’s a recipe.) As for your dad’s cornbread, I bet he’d send you a batch if you asked really, really nicely.

I can’t help you with that Pumpkin Spice Latte. But everything else, I promise, you can have in February.
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If you have an ED history, you might need some extra support.

A lot of us feel anxious about food during the holidays, but there’s a difference between eating that goes on during these periods, and eating that is disordered. (Furthermore, there is a difference between disordered eating and having an eating disorder. More on that here.) For the majority, that anxiety is survivable, and will ease up when life returns to normal.

However, if you’re struggling with an eating disorder, or if you ever have, then the holidays can been challenging or triggering. That’s not to say everyone with a history of ED is in immediate danger from November until January. It just means that, like everyone, you could be a little more vulnerable. You might start by just doing a little preparation for difficult situations.

Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN (and host of the excellent Food Psych podcast) suggests these two key strategies: “The first approach is the most direct: Assert your needs, and explain to friends and family why comments about weight, calories, ‘cheat meals,’ or ‘working off’ holiday food are so damaging. The other approach is simply to change the subject, and leave any conversation you don’t feel comfortable in. If you go that route, you could consider calling or texting a compassionate friend for additional support.” Harrison offered this advice in a roundtable discussion with other ED specialists last year. You can read the full discussion on getting through the holidays with ED here.

And, as ever, if you find yourself in need of professional support, please do contact the NEDA helpline. If you have professional support in place, reach out. Or, if someone reaches out to you, try to listen. The important thing to remember is that needing support, asking for it, or receiving it, is no failure — not even close.

I wish that your holiday season be celebratory, delicious, and filled with cheer. But if it’s also filled with stress and emotional vulnerability, well then, my friend, welcome to the party. You’ll have plenty of company here.
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