How to not freak out about food on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is supposed to be about food, but with all the mixed messages about overabundance and restriction coming from diet culture, it can be a stressful day of eating. Learn strategies for not freaking out about food on Thanksgiving so you can fully enjoy yourself. #thanksgiving #intuitiveeating #wellness #dietitian #health #holidays #fall

Traditional media was never winning any awards for promoting normal eating, but this time of year, the headlines reach new levels of absurdity. Yes, even more so than May's push to maintain a near starvation level calorie deficit simply to wear a bikini, an item of clothing that despite what we’re told, legit looks good on all bodies.

The whole point of Thanksgiving is being grateful, specifically, grateful for food. Yet most articles about Thanksgiving focus on how to deprive yourself - how to cut calories in your favorite foods, how not to “overeat,” what exercises to do to “burn off” the stuffing. Yet again, we’re given messages to restrict ourselves in an environment where food is plentiful - just another example of diet culture’s mixed messaging.

Those mixed messages can make Thanksgiving a really stressful time for eating, especially if you struggle with disordered eating. Family members push second helpings on you, then go on a guilt-laden tirade over how many calories are in the squash casserole. A facebook friend shares a video on how to make an over-the-top Thanksgiving dessert, followed by an infograph of what exercise you need to do to burn off traditional Thanksgiving sides (literally spotted this on my feed). Throw some tricky family dynamics into the mix and you’ve got all the ingredients for an incredibly stressful eating experience.

If you’re feeling anxious about the holidays, here’s some tips for enjoying your meal on Thanksgiving:

Eat breakfast.

I don’t care how much you plan to eat on Thanksgiving, your body still needs breakfast, and you will enjoy your meal SO much more if you aren’t ravenously hungry. Plus, you’re less likely to get homicidal on your spouse when they mess up the timing on the turkey (speaking from experience here). Making your stomach go from no food to lots of food feels really uncomfortable, and if you’re ravenously hungry sitting down at the table, you’re much more likely to “overeat” (I use quotations because that word implies there is a right about to eat). If you have an early Thanksgiving meal, it might make sense to have something light, like a smoothie (try my classic green smoothie) or toast with peanut butter. If it’s later, be sure to get some fat, protein and carbs with breakfast. I think my cranberry apple high protein oatmeal or hash brown breakfast casserole with kale would be perfect for the holiday.

Eat what you like. Pass on what you don’t.

Guys, you have permission to not eat foods you don’t like. Me, I don’t like green bean casserole, so I don’t eat it. I also like the sides way more than I like turkey, so I usually just get a very small piece. If someone is upset with you for not eating something they made, that’s on them. You’re allowed to have food preferences, and that doesn’t say anything about someone’s cooking skills (or maybe it does - still, you can politely decline without saying “your sweet potatoes suck Aunt Susan). Similarly, if you taste something and decide you don’t like it, you don’t have to finish it.

Last years Thanksgiving plate. Solid sides to turkey ratio here.

Last years Thanksgiving plate. Solid sides to turkey ratio here.

Take mindful pauses.

Mindful eating is a useful skill, but realistically you’re not going to pay total and complete attention to your meal when you’ve got a room full of family or friends to chat with. Practice taking mindful pauses throughout the meal. Notice any thoughts or judgements about the food you’re eating. Check in with the hunger/fullness scale to see how you feel. Tune into your senses and notice what the food tastes like - is it pleasurable, or not? Then get back to gossiping about your family members that aren’t there.

Be prepared to change the topic from diet talk.

Be prepared with a list of topics or questions to divert from diet talk. Or, if you feel comfortable, prepare a quick statement, like “hey, I’d appreciate it if we didn’t talk about dieting on Thanksgiving. It’s a day about being thankful for food, and talking about dieting makes it hard to enjoy this meal that we worked so hard to prepare without feeling guilty.”

Remember that “overeating” on Thanksgiving is totally normal - and even pleasurable!

Thanksgiving day full doesn’t have to be a bad thing! Absent fatphobia, is there anything bad about leaving the table feeling like you want to put on stretchy pants and take a nap? While there will likely be leftovers, and of course you always have permission to eat your Thanksgiving favorites throughout the year, chances are you’re not going to want to put all that effort into cooking an entire Thanksgiving spread - so enjoy it!

Remember that holiday weight gain is drastically over-exaggerated by the diet industry to get you to buy their programs in January.

If you do gain weight over the holidays, it’s OK! Bodies naturally fluctuate within a 10-20 lb set point range, and a time of year with less physical activity and more holiday parties and other food focused celebrations, it makes sense that you might be at the higher end of yours. The average amount of weight gain over the holidays is actually quite small - but I won’t put the number here because I don’t want it to be triggering, or make anyone feel bad if they gain more than average. If you do gain weight, perhaps your body needed to - even if you already have a larger body. Perhaps giving yourself more permission around food and even “overeating” was part of your healing process. Your worth and value is not defined by your size.

holiday weight gain.jpg

At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is about food. It's also about family and tradition and football and Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade and getting annoyed with your siblings and tacky decorations and finally getting to watch Christmas movies. But mostly, it’s about food. And that's okay.

Now, I'd love to hear your favorite Thanksgiving foods! Personally, I LOVE stuffing and I make the absolute best mac and cheese on the planet (here's the recipe!).

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