• It’s possible to gorge yourself at holiday meals without experiencing lingering physical and emotional consequences.
  • You can spare yourself some guilt and stress by sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with a feasting mentality rather than a bingeing mentality.
  • Though you can’t escape food, you can change your thoughts about food, and your body may do the rest of the work for you.
  • Mindfulness, cognitive restructuring, and the maintenance of routines can benefit binge eaters, people with orthorexia, and other individuals at the holidays.

A holiday feast should be a joyous occasion, where people clink glasses and indulge in deliciousness and reinforce their bonds of love. But all too often these banquets conclude with a substantial portion of the guests laid up on the couch, dealing with heartburn, hating themselves for their gluttony. (This latter scene is an established tradition in many families, including my own.) Is that okay? Just the cost of celebration? Or should we be protecting our bodies and our mental health a little more carefully around the holidays?

Now that Thanksgiving is coming up, it’s time to revisit this question of holiday eating and whether our usual eating rules can fly out the window when the festivities begin.  

Why We Love Seasonal Eating Sprees

From an evolutionary perspective, humans are born to over-serve themselves fatty, high-calorie foods. They’re also programmed to gain weight in the winter, perhaps via sunlight cues. This is the time of year that signals food scarcity to our ancestral brains, so our eating habits adjust. Our bodies tend to add pounds between September and March. 

Fine, no problem. We’ll lose the lbs in April. Except we often don’t. Instead, we continue to sustain more seasonal weight gain than nature intended. That’s because the holidays bring with them multiple feasting opportunities. One food bacchanal doesn’t matter much because our bodies recalibrate to maintain the status quo. But several eating sprees back to back, plus days of leftovers, plus emotional eating from holiday stress, plus increased alcohol consumption, etc., can all add up to more enduring weight gain. Suddenly your day-long problem at Thanksgiving is a two-month-long problem, which is long enough to change your habits and your relationship with food. Overfeeding mice for just three days can result in leptin and insulin resistance, both associated with obesity. It’s far more difficult to return to normal calorie intake after you’ve been bingeing regularly. 

A Holiday Feast Vs. a Binge

That being said, no one wants to be the killjoy who tells you that you can’t enjoy a festive binge on Thanksgiving. Eating thousands of excess calories feels like part of the culture, part of the fun. Perhaps the difference is in attitude. Around the holidays, do you begin to look forward to a one-time feast with your family and friends, or do you start to become preoccupied with food days or weeks in advance and fret about what an uncontrolled binge will do to your diet? Eating disorders (like anorexia nervosa and binge-eating disorder) can be triggered during the holiday season because food seems to be everywhere. People might turn to food to cope with feelings of stress or sadness—even seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It’s a fraught time for folks with eating issues. 

So can you turn your unhappy bingeing mentality into a happy feasting mentality? Yes. It’s possible to maintain your sense of control and wellbeing even as you overindulge at Thanksgiving dinner. Just follow these guidelines:

  1. Anticipate and challenge the kinds of thoughts that lead to binges. Binges can sometimes be caused by all-or-nothing thinking patterns. You eat a few hundred calories too many, and you believe that you’ve now ruined your diet so you might as well eat six thousand more calories. This is questionable logic that can be tackled with cognitive restructuring
  2. Give yourself a “free day”. This feels qualitatively different from planning to restrict your calories, then “failing.” Let yourself enjoy food with others, without guilt and stress. This is a controlled lapse that keeps you in the driver’s seat. And research shows that “prescribed breaks” don’t sabotage diets.
  3. Reject a scarcity mindset. Remember that you can eat these special dishes at other times, too, not just at holiday parties. Ask your relatives for their recipes. 
  4. Face your feelings. If you find yourself eating to avoid distress, that’s not a feast. That’s a maladaptive coping strategy, and a binge is just going to make you feel worse in the long-term. Maybe there’s a family member or a friend whom you can identify in advance as a support system over Thanksgiving. A five-minute chat and hug outside the coat closet might give you the strength you need to get through dessert. And remember that it’s completely normal to be stressed during the holidays. You can learn to feel those feelings directly without escaping them through food.
  5. Don’t punish yourself when you overeat. Your brilliant body will figure out how to restore its equilibrium in the days after Thanksgiving. Immediately after the meal, you might feel the impulse to keep your blood sugar elevated with more and more food so you can keep prolonging the inevitable crash, but instead, try accepting your food hangover and appreciate your body’s process. 

Advice for Clean Eaters and Orthorexics

Orthorexia nervosa is not a clinical diagnosis, but it refers to an unhealthy preoccupation with clean eating. People with orthorexia might be obsessed with healthy food and healthy lifestyles to the point where nutrition can take on a near-religious significance. This kind of black-and-white thinking can turn Thanksgiving meals into a battle between good (steamed brussels sprouts) and evil (creamy mashed potatoes). 

Unfortunately, perfection eating might be impossible to maintain over the holidays. So again, plan to fail. Load up on flax seed in the morning, bring a healthy dish to the potluck, and always put a small portion of your grandmother’s famous buttered butter on your plate. It might be a good idea to stay out of the kitchen during meal prep so you don’t see the toxic ingredient that goes into the buttered butter (spoiler: it’s butter), but you can make some compromises for the sake of enjoying the holiday. Give yourself permission to be imperfect. You’re still in control of your body. 

Lastly, nobody wants to sit next to a spoilsport. Come up with other Thanksgiving conversation starters besides the depravity of processed foods.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merrily Flexible

And now it’s time to feast. Mentality is everything. We so rarely get to enjoy truly hedonistic eating without succumbing to worry and remorse. This Thanksgiving, try choosing pleasure. Eat mindfully. Slow down and engage all your senses. Take charge of your plate and its many delights. And here’s some general advice to round out your meal—and your moments:

  1. Maintain your exercise routine. Not to compensate for holiday calories, but to manage your mental health and metabolism. Exercise is self-care. Plus, bodies become attached to their rhythms. And research shows that self-monitoring can effectively prevent normal holiday weight gain.
  2. Keep eating regular meals. For example, don’t skip breakfast. Don’t starve yourself leading up to Thanksgiving dinner. These deprivation strategies may just lead to bingeing, not feasting. Instead, trust your body, in its infinite wisdom, to manage your overall calorie intake. 
  3. Enjoy the benefits of eating well without being self-righteous. Favor holiday foods with lots of fiber, protein, and water content (like fruits and vegetables) if you want to feel fuller, sooner. Plus veggies are delicious. Especially when they’re buttered.
  4. Mingle. Shift your focus from food to people. Savor the presence of the friends and family you care about. 
  5. Practice self-kindness and self-compassion. Heartburn and flatulence don’t mean failure. The permission you give yourself to indulge should be unconditional.
  6. Remember that food is nourishing and a way of bringing people together. Big meals don’t have to feel like ticking timebombs. They can feel like love.
  7. Don’t think about Christmas. Seriously, just navigate one holiday at a time.