Holiday Eating: 7 Ways to Nurture Your Body and Banish Guilt

Are visions of sugar plums dancing in your head? Along with Christmas cookies, cheese spreads, eggnog, casseroles, hot chocolate, gingerbread and peppermint candies?

How do you stay healthy—physically and mentally—during the holidays with so many delicious treats around, some of which feel downright naughty?

You can enjoy foods of all kinds while taking care of your body and mind when you deploy the tools of mindful eating, say UNC Health psychologist Christine Peat, PhD, director of the National Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, and UNC Health dietitian Shelly Wegman.

Mindful eating is about listening to your body and being in tune with its sensations, without judgment or “food rules” about what is OK to eat. Here’s how.

1. Allow yourself to enjoy treats.

Both experts say to enjoy that cookie or cup of cocoa this holiday season. Savor the taste and the feeling these foods give you. But between parties, holiday meals and special events, take good care of yourself by eating nutritious foods, getting enough rest and exercising.

“We eat for a lot of reasons,” Wegman says, “and hunger is not necessarily at the top of the list.”

More often, we eat because of the feelings we attach to the food.

“The foods we have during the holidays are often associated with cultural or family traditions,” Dr. Peat says. “You should ask yourself what you want to focus on this holiday season: how ‘bad’ the food is for you, or getting together with family you haven’t seen since before COVID? And maybe you’re introducing your traditions to new family members or your kids.”

2. Think about how the food makes you feel.

“Everybody knows that uncomfortable feeling of being overstuffed after a holiday meal,” Wegman says. “If you are practicing mindful eating, then you can have anything you want, but you listen to how it makes you feel and why you are eating it.”

She describes mindful eating as being aware of your thoughts, feelings and senses to understand the “why” of eating and to guide your decisions about food.

“Try to move away from the all-or-nothing thinking,” Wegman says. For example, maybe you want peppermint cheesecake, but you know that eating too much will cause stomach discomfort later. Grab a piece and share it with your spouse. Take one hors d’oeuvre at a time rather than loading up your plate, and then listen to your body. Maybe you’ll be satisfied after one, and maybe you won’t. “You can always go back and get more.”

If you are mindful of how foods make you feel, you might be less likely to overeat red meat, fried food and sugar.

3. Stop when you are satisfied.

“Eat slowly and savor every bite,” Wegman says. “If you do that, you may find it doesn’t take as much to satisfy you as you first thought it would.”

Don’t be afraid to leave food on your plate. Often, you can wrap it up and enjoy it later.

If there are more delicious options than you can taste at one time, save some choices for the next meal.

“Eat a few things now and have something else later rather than making yourself ill by trying to eat it all at once,” Wegman says. “The anticipation can be fun. Tell yourself, ‘I’m going to have that dessert for breakfast tomorrow because I can’t fit it in right now.’ There’s nothing wrong with that.”

4. Develop a strategy for parties.

One way to keep from becoming overstuffed is to use smaller plates. If you are at a party with a wide variety of appetizers, using a smaller plate will help you remember to choose the ones that look best to you. Using smaller plates for meals is helpful, too. You won’t tend to heap as much on your plate, then feel obligated to eat it all.

If you are drinking alcohol, remember that it is dehydrating. Drink water while you’re drinking alcohol, and consider adding nonalcoholic options such as seltzer water to your party repertoire.

If you are hosting a party, make sure to offer nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables, alongside the cookies and other treats. Have nonalcoholic drink options for guests.

If you’re cooking for a smaller group, don’t feel like you need to prepare enough food for an army. Match the portion size to the crowd.

“When we see a huge dish of something, we tend to take more than if it’s a smaller dish,” Wegman says. “Make a half recipe of macaroni and cheese so there aren’t as many leftovers to be consumed. Or make an apple tart instead of a whole pie. Think about it—do you really need 10 pounds of potatoes for four people?”

5. Plan ahead.

Keep a calendar of all the celebrations you plan to attend during the holidays, Wegman suggests. That way, you can plan nutrient-dense meals and snacks when you’re not traveling or at a party. Keep trying to eat food that makes you feel good, no matter where you are. But planning for “fun eating” and more nutritious eating can help you strike a balance.

Keep in mind that there’s often stress associated with holidays. Stress depletes your body of many needed vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Be careful to replenish those nutrients as often as you can by eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and other foods that make you feel healthy.

“It comes down to how do you take care of yourself and fuel your body so you can do the things you want to do?” Wegman says.

6. Watch out for emotional traps.

Now is the time to stop viewing food as “good” or “bad,” or judging yourself for eating any of it, Dr. Peat says. “Holidays can be tough because you have access to food that society has labeled ‘bad,’ and you are being indulgent. But food doesn’t have any moral value. A carrot didn’t earn a Nobel Prize, and a Twinkie isn’t going to jail.”

Wellness means taking care of yourself as a whole person, and not feeling bad about yourself at the end of the day, she says.

Focus on things that make your body feel good, and opt out of conversations about body size and diets.

“People will make comments about your appearance, maybe saying you look great since you lost weight,” Dr. Peat says. “This kind of ‘compliment’ reinforces the idea that what’s important about us is our weight or how we look.”

And some loved ones try to demonstrate their affection with food.

“If you know you come from a family that forces food on you, be ready to set boundaries,” she says. “You don’t want to hurt their feelings. Instead, let them know you appreciate the effort they’ve gone to. Eat a little bit—whatever feels good to you—then let them know you’re going to take the rest of the cookies or casserole or whatever home so you can enjoy it for several days.”

7. Know that taking care of yourself sets an example for others.

When others see you giving yourself permission to choose when, what and how much to eat, they are more likely to feel empowered to be more mindful about what they are eating and take time to really savor the treats, too, Wegman and Dr. Peat say.

Setting a positive example for our children is especially important. Let your children hear you delight in your aunt’s gingerbread cookies or your friend’s veggie dip. Avoid criticizing your body or fretting over your eating habits in their presence.

“When it comes to the holidays, just be in the moment,” Dr. Peat says. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the to-do list of cleaning, cooking or pleasing other people. Try to appreciate the time you get to spend with family and friends. That way, a holiday break can really be a break and be restorative.”

If you want to learn more about mindful approaches to health and wellness, talk to your doctor, or find one near you.