Ever feel like the holiday season is a minefield for your healthy eating goals? With extra stress and busyness — not to mention the buffets — if you place pressure on yourself to “be good,” you may end up with a heavy weight of guilt by New Year’s Day.
Thankfully, there’s an alternative to this negative script. Intuitive eating (IE) offers an empowering approach to holiday food choices for both your body and mind, resulting in more enjoyment, less guilt, and better health. This 10-principle food philosophy aims to reframe negative thinking about food and guide you to eat just the right amount.
If you’re unfamiliar with intuitive eating, you may assume it’s the same thing as mindful eating. While the two have plenty of overlap, they’re not exactly the same.
Mindful eating has its roots in Buddhism and encourages giving food your full attention. Intuitive eating is a more focused, trademarked program started by dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole in the 1990s. It takes mindfulness a step further to address common underlying mental and emotional issues with food.
Here’s how to apply each of IE’s principles for better mental and physical health this time of year.
The first step of intuitive eating is to reject the belief that you must be on a diet. Around the holidays, it’s especially easy to fall prey to this mindset. We often make promises to ourselves, like “This year, I’m really going to count my calories” or “I’ll eat what I want now and then start a diet in January.”
Intuitive eating says to throw this the diet mentality out the window. Why? Humans are biologically wired to eat when we’re hungry, and it’s nearly impossible for us to override these ingrained signals. Even if we succeed at limiting calories, research shows that after about 2 weeks, the body begins to adapt, conserving rather than burning more energy, undoing our efforts to restrict.
Plus, stressing about your food choices may even cause your body to release hormones that fuel overeating, according to
Rather than hold yourself to a strict diet regimen throughout the holidays, try training your thoughts toward a bigger picture of health and nourishment.
“It’s important to remember that health isn’t confined to merely the physical, as these good/bad labels imply,” says registered dietitian Yaffi Lvova, RDN. “When we appreciate the many health benefits, both physical and emotional, that come with enjoying time with friends and family, we can relax and focus on the true meaning of the holidays.”
Honoring your hunger means allowing yourself to eat when your body tells you it needs food. Throughout the holidays, make a point of clueing into your body’s hunger and fullness cues. “While at holiday parties, take a deep breath before eating to check in with yourself,” advises Lvova. “Throughout the party, remember to touch base with your biological signals while honoring your hunger and satiety.”
It’s also a good idea to take steps to prevent excessive hunger — colloquially known as “hanger” — which can lead to overindulgence and a rollercoaster of emotions.
“While preparing for the holidays, make sure to eat regular meals and snacks,” Lvova suggests. “If you’re caring for kids, feeding them is a great reminder to sit down yourself and care for your own needs as well.”
Keeping convenient, healthy foods on hand in your kitchen, or even your car, can keep you from becoming ravenous.
According to the intuitive eating approach, you have permission to eat any food at any time. Unless you have a medical or cultural restriction, it’s not necessary to forbid yourself from eating certain foods at the holidays or any other time.
Doing so will likely only increase your cravings and create feelings of deprivation. This isn’t an excuse for no-holds-barred overeating. It simply allows you to decide what you want to eat, and what you don’t, based on your own hunger.
When a voice in your head whispers you were “bad” because you ate a dinner roll — with butter, too! — that’s the food police. For many of us, an authoritarian internal monologue steals the joy around holiday eating. But intuitive eating offers freedom from these constraints.
“You can have any food you like, in a portion that feels appropriate to you, without guilt or shame,” says dietitian and nutrition consultant Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N of RSP Nutrition. “The only one imparting guilt or shame onto you is you. Ultimately, you have the power over how you feel about food and your body.”
Unfortunately, during at the holidays, others may try to police your food choices, too. But you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules or take on pressure around your eating.
If a family member judges the contents of your plate, change the subject or tell them it’s not any of their business what you eat. And if someone offers you a piece of pie you really don’t feel like eating, simply politely decline — no explanation necessary. It’s your body and it’s your choice.
Just like it’s vital to track your hunger, it’s important to keep tabs on your fullness. There are more opportunities to eat during the holidays than at other times of year, but that doesn’t mean you have to chow down past your own barometer of comfort.
To stay mindful, try setting notifications on your phone to remind yourself to check in with your fullness throughout a holiday event. Or, at a busy gathering, make a point of sitting down with your plate in a quiet space. This can minimize distractions, helping you experience your own satiety.
Even if you do end up overindulging, it’s not worth beating yourself up over it. “Sometimes, you’ll eat past fullness,” says Lvova. “Sometimes this is a conscious decision, and sometimes it sneaks up on you. Both scenarios will likely happen this season. And neither requires a guilt trip.”
There’s no better time than the holiday season to focus on pleasure from eating! Savoring delicious favorites is actually a great way to eat just enough of them. By slowing down and giving a food your full attention, you’ll experience its flavors and textures more fully. This way, you may not continue to eat past fullness.
The holidays also invite us to appreciate the role of food in celebration. “Focus on the joy the food brings to your family,” encourages Moreno. “Focus on the cooking process and the sheer beauty of food.”
There’s no denying that emotions can run high from November to January. Difficult family situations, loneliness, or financial strain are enough to make us want to numb out with a whole plate of cookies or a gallon of eggnog. Intuitive eating advises processing uncomfortable emotions in other ways.
When tempted to “eat your feelings,” consider what other stress relievers work for you. Do you feel better after a brisk walk or a phone call to a friend? Perhaps you could engage in a favorite hobby or spend a little time in nature. Choose a positive coping mechanism that’ll leave you feeling refreshed, not weighed down with guilt.
When you run into your drop-dead gorgeous high school friend or chat with your size 0 cousin while home for the holidays, you may be tempted to compare your body to theirs. But intuitive eating encourages you to accept your unique genetic blueprint. As much as you may envy others’ physical features, wishing your body would look like theirs isn’t realistic.
“Your body type/weight is up to 80 percent genetically determined,” says Moreno. “Diet culture will tell you that it is easy to manipulate your size and shape. This sadly just isn’t true for many people. What’s true is that you can manipulate and enhance your own health behaviors, regardless of the size/shape outcome on your own body.”
Focus on what you like about your body instead and give thanks for the ways it serves you.
Aerobic exercise of any kind reduces your production of stress hormones and releases endorphins, the body’s natural mood enhancers. Though it can be tough to find a time to squeeze in a workout during this busy season, even small bursts of activity can boost your good vibes.
Dance to music while you prep a holiday meal. Take a break from wrapping gifts to do a 10-minute YouTube yoga video. Ask if a work meeting can be a walking meeting.
You might even get the whole family involved by starting a new, active holiday tradition, like caroling, taking a hike after a meal, or organizing a family steps challenge.
To eat well is to eat for both pleasure and health. Believe it or not, you don’t have to eat “perfectly” to be in good health. Throughout the holiday season, consider how your diet nourishes you and brings you joy rather than how it could change your weight or appearance.
And remember this advice from intuitive eating’s founders: “It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters. Progress, not perfection, is what counts.”
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.