Holiday Eating is Neither Naughty nor Nice

Co-written with Naureen Hunani, RD
www.NaureenHunani.com

The holidays are around the corner and as many others, we are excited to spend time with family and friends and have a more relaxed routine.

Despite feeling a little (ahem, a lot) overwhelmed with preparing for the holiday break, we felt we had to take the time to clarify some points brought up in a recent article published by a popular institute giving advice on how to prevent holiday weight gain. Since some of the advice was contradictory and fatphobic, we felt compelled to give a more weight inclusive side of the story and challenge the weight loss rhetoric that too often coops the holiday spirit.

What is wrong with a little advice on preventing holiday weight gain?

First of all, you may not be able to prevent weight gain over the holidays and that is ok! Weight fluctuations are a reality for anyone who is living in a human body. They are not a sign of “doing something wrong”. Weight changes are a sign that you are human.

Weight changes during the holidays happen for a variety of reasons: medications, change in activity levels, chaotic routine, lack of self-care, sleep issues, stress and yes, what we eat can play a part too. Please note, that some of these influences we can control and others we cannot.

Weight changes also happen throughout the year and throughout our lifetime due to many things: aging, gut dysbiosis or microbiota, the body pulling you in the direction of a health, suppressed body weight in the past, socioeconomic status, discrimination and oppression, fatphobia, etc. There are so many influences over our body’s weight and food is not the only nor sometimes the biggest influence over our size. Of course, if you are experiencing any major fluctuations in either direction, please seek medical advice and investigate possible health issues.


Weight change during the holidays happens for a variety of reasons. Some of which you can control, while others you cannot.

Surprisingly, there is no consensus in the scientific community what defines normal fluctuations in weight. There is the old adage that your weight can fluctuate up to 5lbs in one day (although I cannot find a specific journal article to back that up). A recent study categorized variability of BMIs of over 6 million people. The group with the least change varied by 2.9 BMI points. Perhaps these 2.2 million people represent the average variability? One lone study suggests 3-5% is a normal fluctuation.

Clearly, more research has to be done on this and I can imagine that a “normal” fluctuation of weight day to day, or within a holiday period or within a year will be different from person to person. What your normal fluctuations are may not be what your entourage is experiencing.

Ditch the good food/ bad food mentality

This particular holiday article, the reader was advised to remove the labels of “good and bad” or “healthy and unhealthy” that we assign to foods. Diet culture often encourages us to call a food bad, or to forbid it. However, paradoxically, this only intensifies our desire for it. The article implied that removing assigned morality to food is easy but we’d like to point out that this requires more than just sheer will.

A great first step can be to recognize that you are calling foods good and bad. Building resilience against the many messages from society that encourage to cut out certain foods is helpful in avoiding this black and white thinking. One way to do this is to find reasons beyond nutrition and nutrients for eating a food. Also, addressing the fear of weight changes when allowing all foods to fit into your life is paramount. Which brings us to the next suggested step: understanding and dealing with your fears of weight gain. It turns out body size is less linked to health than we thought.

Just saying all foods fit doesn’t work in the long run. Issues and bias towards fat and weight changes have to be addressed to fully embrace the “all foods fit” idea.


Looking for more on making all food fit during the holidays? Check out this article: Why I won’t be modifying any of my holiday recipes to be cleaner, lighter or healthier.


Holiday eating is neither naughty or nice

Holiday eating looks different for different people. For some, holiday eating can be consuming structured meals with family and friends. For others, it’s eating alone in front of the TV or driving while eating prepackaged snacks on the road to meet family across town. For some families, it is spending countless hours in the kitchen making gourmet meals from scratch and for others it is ordering take out to catch a break.

The point is that there is no right or wrong way of eating during the holidays. We personally don’t like the term “normal” holiday eating (as used in this article) because everyone is unique and we all have different needs when it comes to food. Not everyone eats during the holidays to satisfy physical hunger and that is OK too! Our goal is not to judge people over their holiday eating habits!

Also, we have noticed that many individuals experience a significant amount of stress during the holiday season, especially parents of young children. Stress can impact our eating and our food choices too. During gatherings and family events, people may undereat or overeat due to various reasons and these reasons are not always linked with restriction. Social anxiety also plays a huge role in how we eat in parties.

Just like many other holiday eating articles, this one touched on going to events hungry: “Many times [people] come to parties over-hungry because they’re trying to restrict themselves and lose weight.”. Absolutely! However, we would add that people also label foods good and bad due this exact reason. Why are people trying to lose weight? Because of the rhetoric that weight gain is bad or that , sizes are bad/unhealthy. Also, there are many other reasons why people may go to a party hungry that extend beyond dieting and restricting.

Some individuals may lack self-care skills during busy periods in their lives such as the holiday season. Although we do encourage our clients to take care of themselves and nourish their bodies the best way they can, it is not uncommon for people to skip a meal or a snack in order to complete tasks, chores or simply not feel hungry due to stress! These people are more likely to overeat during dinners and compensate for the nourishment they missed out during the day. For this reason, we need to be flexible with our thinking surrounding holiday eating and be compassionate. It is mentally exhausting to think about how every single bite of food you ingest will impact your weight! Getting to an event hungry and eating more than usual or beyond fullness will happen and it will not affect your health.

So what do we recommend?

This particular holiday article suggested that the reader “eat in a way that is right for you” during the holidays. We both use this message daily in our work with clients but trusting our body to tell us when it needs nourishment and heeding the cues to eat MUST be accompanied with a discussion about fatphobia. Fatphobia is a term used to describe negative judgments associated with a person based on their body size (for example assuming someone is undisciplined or inactive, prescribing different medical treatment (or refusing treatment) based on size, and size overshadowing experience in a workplace setting). Since our society is very bias against people in larger size, it has become the norm to be scared to gain weight or be large due to the judgement (or fatphobia) that comes with it.

Why is hard to just eat in a way that works for you? Or trust our body to tell us what it needs? Or feed it when it is hungry? Because we have been told NOT to trust it for many, many decades. We have been told, by diet culture, that listening and heeding can lead to weight gain. And that weight gain is bad and an indication that we are incompetent eaters or lack willpower. In fact, these judgemental messages regarding “wrong food choices” and “unhealthy weight gain” have been purely made up by the diet industry. The very people who are selling us products to fix our problems created these so-called problems. How convenient!

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating is a way of eating using the body’s wisdom (ie. hunger and fullness and satisfaction cues) to help guide what, how much and when to eat and increasing curious, non-judgemental awareness of eating without hunger. It is about looking inwards for direction versus outwards to things like a meal plan or government sanctioned portion sizes.

Often when we are told to eat according to hunger and fullness cues, thoughts go to fears of constantly eating. The article addresses this with stating that “Rather than haranguing yourself about what you should and shouldn’t be eating, you trust yourself to eat food you enjoy. No food is off limits. Which isn’t to say you eat like there’s no tomorrow.” We would take that thought further and say that “eating like there is no tomorrow” or feeling compelled to eat beyond fullness is reduced with intuitive eating AND letting go of fatphobia/being more neutral towards our body.

When all foods fit, the need to “eat them when you can” fades away. However, this does not go away unless we can discover peace with our body or size. Being scared to gain weight or hating our body (which drives the desire to change it) will tug us in the direction of labelling some foods as forbidden and deprivation backlash that drives overeating.

Humans don’t “eat like there is no tomorrow” because we have evolved to kill ourselves with food. We do it as a reaction to deprivation of some sort. It is a reaction to past dieting, present dieting or future dieting.

This particular article also touches on how to help children develop a healthy relationship with food by suggesting “When you serve dessert, serve everyone a single portion.”. Again, we both very much agree with the idea that everyone around a table should be allowed to enjoy everything served. Our problem is with the emphasis on the portion size. One minute the article advocates for listening to the body and that no foods is off limits, but in the next minute desserts should be limited to 1 portion.

We are dietitians, so we most definitely understand the need to fuel the body with important nutrients. We are also mindful eating experts and know the problems that rigid portion sizes can have on a person’s relationship with food and body. It implies that something bad will happen if a child (or an adult) has 2 portions of dessert- as if magically 2 portions will lead to weight gain (it won’t) or a nutrient deficiency (it won’t).

This is an example of labelling foods good and bad- the very thing this article was trying to advocate against. So, in the hopes that this will improve your relationship with food, we felt it necessary to point out this contradiction. If you find yourself (or your child) eating many portions of dessert on a regular basis and are worried- reach out! Explore why, rather than condemning the food is far more successful with eating in moderation.

Eating at holiday gatherings

To better hear the body’s cues (of hunger and fullness) and satisfaction. the advice was given to “… do what you need to do to enjoy your food: stand in a quiet place, attach yourself to a group that will let you eat in peace.” This is fine advice- if you can or want to follow it. I’m not sure about you but eating during the holidays is generally a social activity with many of our family members trying to converse and catch up. For some, sitting quietly alone or refusing to participate in holiday conversations while eating is detracting from the spirit and joy it brings. Not to mention how children factor into this equation!

As parents, we both know how hard it can be to eat our food warm, pay attention to it’s flavors and textures, while also talking with other adults and tending to our children’s’ needs. We are not “bad eaters” or incompetent because our meals cannot be eaten in peace or every bite savored. That’s the amazing thing about intuitive eating, there is no right or wrong way to do it! And, may we add, that weight gain is not a sign of incompetence or “eating poorly”.

Following the advice to eat in peace will not magically lead to weight stabilization. Following this does not “protect” against weight change, as we noted earlier, weight changes are not necessarily under our control. Equally, not following this advice does not necessarily lead to weight gain. Weight changes are not as simple as calories in, calories out. Blaming food or mindless eating for weight changes is just too darn simple for the complex human bodies we inhabit.

Eating in peace and listening to your body’s cues does not magically lead to weight stability. Equally, eating without paying attention does not automatically lead to weight gain.

Weight fluctuations will not have a negative impact on your health.

This artcle states that “Competent eaters don’t gain weight over the holidays because they’re accustomed to eating as much as they want of the foods they enjoy all year long.”. Nope, sorry. This is not based on science. Does eating intuitively or competently reduce the chance of weight yoyoing due to dieting? Yep. But our weight fluctuates for many other reasons too (see above). Many are out of our control. There is NOTHING in life that can guarantee a stable weight. Our bodies evolved to be able to fluctuate in size in order to keep us healthy. It is not a sign of poor health, but a sign that your body is amazing at pulling us in the direction of health.

We agree that beating yourself up for overeating often leads into a shame spiral that is not healthy for our minds or body. It is very healing to dig deeper into why you are beating yourself up.

Consider this: weight gain during the holidays is a reality for some people, even intuitive eaters. Weight returning to what it was before the holiday is also a big possibility for intuitive eaters. Without the body shame or food guilt, intuitive eaters go back to normal, non-holiday routines. If this means eating less or eating foods with different energy density, then it may mean returning to your natural, healthy weight. Ironically, dieting leads to weight gain, so the very thing we are drawn to to “take care of holiday weight gain” actually pulls us in the opposite direction.

Within the intuitive and competent eating world, some advocates use the argument that “It’s not a big deal to go home too full because you probably won’t be too hungry the next day.” It is possible that you will eat less at the next meal if you eat more energy at the present meal. But, it is also possible that your appetite will remain the same. This is not a sign of “doing it right” or “wrong”. In fact, if we tell people to expect lower appetites or hunger levels after a large meal, and this does not pan out, we are instilling the idea that their body cannot be trusted and that there is a right and wrong way to eat. This fuels dieting and the diet mentality. Truthfully, no one can tell you how much to eat or how much your body needs at any one time. Luckily, you don’t need that advice since your body has the innate ability to take care of its needs (remember those hunger and fullness cues we’ve been talking about?).


Do you feel your eating is out of control? Don’t want to diet but aren’t sure what else to do? Find out how intuitive eating can help you be healthier and happier by reading THIS


Exploring New Year’s Resolutions

This article also touches on resolutions: “People say: ‘I’m not going to eat all those delicious foods I love. I’m only going to eat fruits and vegetables and other ‘good’ foods.’ Fruits and vegetables are wonderful, but if you’re eating them as penance, you’re not going to enjoy them.” We totally agree that pushing food rules and demonizing certain foods cause all sorts of issues. However, we also know that using weight fluctuations as judgement of eating competency or ability to adequately and healthfully nourish our body is equally as a ridiculous, non-scientific concept.

Without normalizing normal weight changes, we are invalidating people’s experiences and fueling the body distrust rhetoric. It is no better than any other diet that instructs you to eat a certain way and blames you for the failure with a booby prize of weight gain.

If you are a New Year’s Resolution type of person, here is our suggestion to you: try spending your energy and time on self-compassion, gratitude and awareness.

Rather than put your energy into dieting or changing your weight, try something that is truly beneficial for your physical and mental health. Holidays and celebrations have become about weight – losing weight before hand, avoiding weight gain during and atoning afterwards. Diet culture takes steals our energy and time that we could otherwise be spending with loved ones during the holidays connecting and celebrating.

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