A Nutritionist's Advice on How to Eat Whatever You Want Over the Holidays

The holidays should be a time of happiness, not a time to stress about what you put on your plate. Which is why you should stop feeling so guilty every time you open your mouth to a holiday meal and start thinking about it in a whole new light.

OK, you may be thinking, If I let myself eat whatever I want, I'm going to look like Santa by New Year's. But we spoke to some experts who say that isn't necessarily the case. Maybe if you eat pecan pie for breakfast and sugar cookies for dinner for 6 weeks straight, then yes, but these experts argue that if you try to restrict your food too much this season, you may end up overeating. Sounds counterintuitive, but there is some merit to eating whatever the f* you want.

When Restriction Goes Wrong

If you want to lose weight, cutting calories is the way to go, right? Unfortunately, it's not that simple. A recent study found that people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains, and processed foods, and emphasize vegetables and whole foods without counting calories or restricting portion sizes, lost significant amounts of weight in a year.

While certain diets preach restricting calories and may even result in short-term weight loss, many people who lose that weight may gain it back. Anyone who has ever been on this rollercoaster ride of fluctuating weight can tell you it's not fun and it causes stress on a daily basis, especially around the holidays.

“People feel out of control over the holidays because the feelings of deprivation and restriction make you want to overeat,” says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness and creator of free e-guide 5-Minute Mindful Eating Exercise.

Research suggests that restricting certain foods causes you to think of them as a “reward,” which makes the desire to eat that food even greater. So, think about holiday cookies a little differently this year: Instead of swearing to yourself you won't have more than one, just go ahead and enjoy two or three at the festive party and end the last bite with a smile.

Easier said than done, right? Changing your way of thinking can be tough. Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, intuitive eating counselor and blogger at The Foodie Dietitian, says to start out by challenging your standard “food rules.”

“Typically, when there is guilt associated with an eating behavior, it means there is a perceived food rule that has been broken,” Lydon says. “For example, if you feel guilty after having a second helping of dessert, there is an internalized rule that you should only have one serving of dessert. Get curious about where that rule comes from, how it's serving you or hurting you, and if it's not serving you, begin to challenge it,” she adds.

Since people are creatures of habit and changing your way of thinking may be the toughest choice you make this year, we've compiled a list of practical tips to help you get out of your head so you can eat what you want this holiday season without feeling like crap (mentally and physically).

1. You deserve that slice of pie and don't you forget it.

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If you look forward to your mom's apple pie, your aunt's lasagna, or your dad's homemade stuffing once a year, then you should eat the heck out of it. Research suggests that celebrating a food you love instead of depriving yourself of it may help with weight loss in the long run.

If you're worried the extra indulgences will make you feel like crap, we say go ahead and skip the store-bought cheese and crackers and instead indulge in the good stuff that you look forward to this time of year.

2. One (or two or three) days won't wreck you.

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“Your body is not a robot computing mathematical equations; your body is interested in averages,” Lydon says. You guys, eating differently than you normally would on one day will not, we repeat, will NOT cause significant weight gain or weight loss.

“Over the course of a month, did you eat a variety of healthy foods? If so, you don't need to worry about one day or one week of eating,” Lydon says. So if mashed potato leftovers happen four days in a row, that's OK. Just try to enjoy something lighter for breakfast like overnight oats or a smoothie.

3. Talk to yourself, even if it's super awkward.

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According to Rumsey, the first step in enjoying holiday foods is giving yourself permission to eat them. That might require a (maybe awkward) conversation with yourself, but Uncle Bill already thinks you're crazy so it's fine. “Tell yourself, 'I have permission to eat this,' to remove the guilt from the situation,” Rumsey says. If that feels too formal, just shout, “I have zero regrets and I'm going to eat this pie!”

4. Enough already with the “Diet starts January 1” talk.

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Wait, you mean I'm allowed to eat the “bad” foods and not go on a diet? Rumsey says yes. “Knowing that you are going on a diet on January 1 will lead to feeling out of control around food which drives you to eat more,” she says. During the holidays, go ahead and have your cake and eat it too, but don't forget about balancing the bigger meals out with your protein and veggies.

5. Holidays are stressful, but eating your feelings will only temporarily help.

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People eat to cope with stress, Rumsey says. She suggests being proactive and finding alternative coping strategies ahead of high-stress times. Schedule an hour on the calendar to read a book or take a yoga class or lock yourself in your room so no one can bother you.

“It's best not to be in a go-go-go mode for a month and a half.” Easier said than done, we know, but just chill for a little bit every day. And don't forget that exercise or any type of movement can do wonders when you can't get your mind off the wheel of Brie in your fridge.

6. News flash: You can eat sugar cookies all year long.

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“Sugar cookies are always at the grocery store, and you can make mashed potatoes or pecan pie any time of the year,” Lydon says. As you now know, the reward associated with eating these “once a year” foods can cause you to overindulge. “Reminding yourself that you have permission to eat holiday foods all year round can take away some of the novelty surrounding them,” Lydon says.

How's that for advice from a nutritionist? You're welcome!