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5 Ways to Avoid Holiday Guilt

Updated: May 6

Written by: Natalie Pirolli, MS, RDN, LDN | Updated November 22, 2023

Family smiling around dining room table on Thanksgiving dinner during dessert

It's here — the holiday season is officially upon us. First, it's "Friendsgiving" and Thanksgiving dinners followed by holiday parties throughout December and into the New Year. And while this should feel like the "most wonderful time of the year," sometimes as we cross those holiday parties off of our calendars, we can feel guilty for the way we've been eating and drinking during this celebratory season. This can sometimes make us less excited for the actual holidays and even end up enjoying them less.

It's completely normal to feel this guilt. How could we not with all of the messages out there saying we need to avoid putting on "holiday weight" or should run a "Turkey Trot" in order to earn our dinner? But the holidays are about so much more than calories. Here are some steps we can take to prevent guilt from taking over so we can truly enjoy the holidays:

1. Honor your hunger—eat as you normally would leading up to the holidays (and after).

In other words, don’t starve yourself or over-exercise leading up to Thanksgiving dinner so you can "earn" your meal. Sometimes when we know we will be indulging in rich food, desserts, or more alcohol than usual, we feel the need to compensate for it. Whether that is eating very little the day of (or days before), or eating very little for days after. We might even do more cardio or work out harder than usual before and/or after the meal. This is not only unnecessary but can set us up for failure. We may be famished by the time we get to Thanksgiving dinner or hear that little voice in our head telling us we "earned it," which can set us up for overeating.

Similarly, telling ourselves during the meal that we’re "not going to eat tomorrow" or "will do extra cardio tomorrow" gives our minds the OK to overeat that day. This is just like how "cheat days" in diets end up being overindulgent because we restrict leading up to them and know we will go back to restricting after them, which permits us to overdo it in the moment. Restricting intake (i.e., dieting) is the number one predictor of overeating, and kicks off that guilt/shame-restrict-overeat cycle. So, you’re better off eating and exercising as you normally would (eating enough) on the days before and after the holidays.

Avoiding restriction also helps us avoid the "F*** It" mentality that can follow the holidays. This is when we feel bad about how we've been eating, so we throw in the towel on all our other health behaviors ("I've already been bad so I might as well skip yoga, eat a carton of ice cream, not buy any vegetables this week..."). Don't feel like it's "not worth it" to resume your typical eating, movement, and other lifestyle habits in the days following the holidays.

So essentially, we want to think of the holiday as a regular day of eating — we still need breakfast, and maybe lunch or a snack depending on the time of our meal. And yes, the meal may look a little different than our typical meals (i.e. there may be tastier options available at Thanksgiving dinner), and yes we can enjoy them without first "earning" them or compensating after.

We feel the need to compensate for it... This is not only unnecessary but can set us up for failure.

2. Know that it’s OK to eat past fullness.

Eating isn't as simple as "eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full," especially at delicious holiday meals and (extra) especially when diet mentality is present. The physical feeling of fullness can also affect our mental state triggering negative body image thoughts or urges to restrict or compensate. It is important to know that nothing bad is going to happen to you because you ate past fullness that day. Your body can handle this—you don’t have to fast or run 6 miles the next day to make up for it. You also don’t need to physically feel hungry in order to have dessert. It's designed to be a post-meal treat, how could you be hungry for it? Know that you are allowed to enjoy yourself.

Of course, you don’t want to make yourself sick, so it’s good to check in with just how full you are feeling throughout the meal. Remember you can always enjoy leftovers if you're starting to feel physically uncomfortable but still haven't tried everything you wanted. (Hint: following tip number 1 can help you avoid overeating/eating to the point of uncomfortable fullness!)

3. Know that it’s OK to enjoy all foods (and leftovers).

No day is a good day to be on a fad diet but the holidays are certainly a bad time to be avoiding carbs, fats, dairy, sugar, happiness… It’s tough because all of those "How not to gain holiday weight," and "New Year New You” diet ads are coming out and can make you feel guilty for enjoying the holidays. Instead of walking into dinner and telling yourself you have to "be good... skip cocktails or dessert... lay off the carbs," etc., give yourself the permission to eat whatever foods you enjoy that day. By simply having permission to eat what you want, you are significantly decreasing the likelihood of overeating and are helping to reduce any guilt afterward. It sounds counterintuitive, but this abundance mindset is actually what prevents us from hyperfocusing on and/or overdoing it with food.

It can also help to know that you can enjoy these foods the days after Thanksgiving, too. If we have permission to eat holiday dishes and treats only one day a year, then we may overdo it that day and feel uncomfortable and guilty. Kind of like a "last supper" or cheat day type of feeling. And like we talked about earlier, when you’re starting to feel uncomfortably full but still want to try a few more treats, just take some in a to-go bag and enjoy them in the upcoming days. (My favorite holiday leftovers are cookies and pumpkin bread and I always look forward to having them with my coffee after breakfast as “breakfast dessert” around the holidays!).

By simply giving yourself the permission to eat what you want, you are significantly decreasing the likelihood of overeating and helping to reduce any guilt afterward.

4. Reframe the commentary from the food police.

These thoughts can come from your own head or be influenced by your company. It’s OK if your aunt keeps talking about her weight loss at dinner, your uncle is Keto so just eating turkey with lots of gravy, and your cousin ran 15 miles that morning and has told you about it 6 times. This doesn’t mean you have to analyze or change any of your food preferences or eating habits on Thanksgiving or after. And if the food police are not the voices around your table but that little one in your head pointing out the amount of sugar, fat, or calories you’ve had, or how you "should" stop eating or compensate tomorrow, remind it that it’s a special day and you are enjoying it (and it can kindly go kick rocks). You can also try this zooming-out practice my clients (and myself) have found helpful when the negative thoughts feel like they're taking over.

I know this is MUCH easier said than done. It can help to first try to make observations when you notice your mind is making judgments. For example, notice that you keep telling yourself "I’m eating so badly" and how that thought is not helpful. Then try to notice what you like about the meal: "I’m really enjoying this stuffing" or even saying out loud "This is the best pumpkin pie I've ever had." This can help us reframe those unhelpful thoughts so that when they come up later that evening, the next day, etc., it’s easier for us to more quickly change the narrative. Here are some common food thoughts with helpful reframes.

5. Remember what the day is really about.

Food is usually at the center of celebrations and it’s unfortunate that diet culture can take away our pleasure, happiness, and celebration, and replace it with stress and guilt. Holidays are for enjoying delicious food and drinks. They are also for enjoying time with our loved ones and celebrating all there is to be grateful for. The dinner table could look a little different next year—appreciate who is around it this year instead of worrying about the food that's on it. The thought of calories, weight, sugar, and carbs should be the furthest things from our minds.

If you find yourself zoning out and feeling guilty or worried about holiday eating, try to bring yourself back to the present moment and remind yourself what else this day is about. If you’re really having a hard time and feel like those thoughts are endless, try this: stand outside for a moment, feel the cool air, and notice your surroundings—the trees, houses, maybe the scent of smoke from nearby chimneys. Take a few deep breaths, and when you get back inside, take a moment to do the same thing. This mindfulness practice can help bring you back to the moment and make it easier to make those observations and reframes from # 4, too.

The dinner table could look a little different next year— appreciate who is around it this year instead of worrying about the food that's on it.

Bottom line, we’re human—we don’t have to eat perfectly all of the time and we certainly do not have to feel guilty for enjoying ourselves and celebrating with the people we love.

Wishing you the happiest, guilt-free holiday.

I chose to include these family photos from a Thanksgiving several years ago because of the happy memories they bring up for me. Looking back on these photos, I feel so grateful for my family and the times we've shared together. Especially now that some have gone to heaven or have had changes in their health. Looking through pictures was a great reminder that we don't look back on holidays and remember how "gross" we felt for eating so much or how "good" we were for skipping dessert. We remember the love we felt and appreciate those times together with family and friends.

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