There’s a reason holidays are so food-focused: Sharing food is how we humans have connected for generations. (That slice of homemade pumpkin pie really does give us life.) But navigating the holiday food table can sometimes be stressful. We may feel guilty after indulging in sweets and treats, or feel all kinds of pressure to eat our auntie’s infamous candied yams (ew). But by tapping into our body’s hunger and fullness cues, we can enjoy holiday meals without redefining fullness or giving into the pressure to eat things we don’t want. Here’s some food for thought.

1. Trust your intuition

Fat, sleeping cat“I keep eating because I tell myself it is only so often that I eat that much, but I feel extremely guilty and get upset with myself at the thought of overeating.”
—Samantha, recent high school graduate, Anthem, Arizona

So often we make rules about how much we can eat, then feel uber-guilty when we blow it and start to worry about putting on pounds. But “there’s so much research showing that it goes against your health when you focus on weight,” says Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and co-creator of Intuitive Eating, a philosophy that empowers you to make friends with food and have a more positive relationship with eating. Tribole and co-creator, Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, say we’re born knowing what our bodies need; we’ve just become disconnected.

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2. How does intuitive eating work?

Girl eating a muffinWhen we adhere to when our body says we’re hungry and full, and allow ourselves to eat what we want when we want, we tend to have a healthier relationship to our food and our bodies. In fact, research shows that using too much restraint or having strict rules about food (e.g., I know this cupcake is unhealthy so I’m not going to eat it) can backfire. A 2015 study found that students who allowed themselves unconditional permission to eat when they felt hungry had a lower BMI (body mass index) and were less likely to display disordered eating patterns than those who tried using restraint.

3. Eat a nutritious breakfast

Bowl of oats and fruitStarving yourself in advance so you can eat all the things on the big day might seem smart, but this can backfire. Instead, look at celebratory gatherings as an opportunity to enjoy what’s served—but stay true to yourself. “Say, ‘I’m going to eat when I’m hungry and not be overly hungry when I go into it,’” says Resch. “‘I’m going to leave some room for delicious desserts and have as much of it as still tastes good, and eat slowly and mindfully so I can appreciate it.’”

“It can be hard to control my urge to eat before I should.”
—Evan, sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts

Try to listen to those hunger cues (e.g., when your stomach feels empty and starts to rumble). Restricting either the type or amount of food you eat is a recipe for binging later, thanks to a neurotransmitter in our brains. “There’s a chemical in the brain called neuropeptide Y that is released when someone is in a kind of semi-starved state; it sends you out to get more calories and carbohydrates as fast as you can,” says Resch. In fact, research shows depriving yourself of even one meal can lead to eating more high-calorie foods such as candy, salty snacks, and red meat. In a 2013 Cornell University study, grocery shoppers who hadn’t eaten in four to five hours bought 45 percent more of these higher-calorie foods than shoppers who’d eaten first.

4. Dump the diet

Scale, apple, and tape measure with giant "X" through imageNot only is dieting ineffective for sustainable weight loss, it can contribute to disordered eating patterns. While obesity is one of the top three public health issues for teens, so are eating disorders, according to a 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics report. When medical professionals put a hyper-focus on diet talk with their adolescent patients, it can contribute to teens’ risk of eating disorders. To combat both, “focus should be on a healthy lifestyle rather than on weight,” according to a clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

5. Say “no” to food pressure

Woman offering a plate of cupcakes“I usually just keep eating to the point I can’t anymore because my parents kind of push me to eat a lot, then get on my case when I do eat too much.”
—Victoria, junior, Cave Creek, Arizona

Adults mean well, but they don’t always get it right. “No matter how many times a well-meaning aunt or relative asks you to try their special holiday recipe, you can still say ‘no,’” says Tribole. If the truth feels too awkward or you’re worried about hurt feelings, say you’re not hungry and offer to take your serving home for later. Ultimately, “you’re not responsible for making them happy. [Saying ‘no thank you’] doesn’t make you a bad person.”

6. Don’t text and eat

Someone texting and putting salt into coffeeWe all know the dangers of texting while driving, but distracted eating (e.g., watching YouTube or scrolling Instagram while eating) can be unhealthy too. Mindful eating—compatible but not to be confused with intuitive eating—is another research-backed philosophy that encourages eaters to slow down and be present with every bite. A 2013 review of studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people tended to eat more when they were distracted, and then continued to eat more throughout the day. Researchers think this later eating may be the result of forgetting what they’d eaten earlier while they were distracted.

7. Mindful vs. mindless

Fridge with lots of veggiesIf you’re struggling to hone your intuitive eating skills, try mindful eating instead. Mindful eating is about making things easier on yourself. “A very small percentage of people have the full time and attention to eat a pea and say, ‘Am I full yet?’” says Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Slim by Design and the director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. Instead, set up your environment so that you don’t have to think. Put less nutritious foods out of sight, and place healthier foods in full view. “If you have cut fruit and vegetables available on the middle shelf of your refrigerator, research shows you’re likely to eat 70 percent more of them.”

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8. Follow the rule of two

Plate with 2 pieces of dessertFor holiday parties, use Wansink’s rule of two: Aim to have just two items on your plate at one time—even if they’re both gooey desserts. You can refill your plate as many times as you want, but stick to just two types of food at once. In a study where participants followed this rule, they reported eating about a third fewer calories, felt just as satisfied, and said they felt less guilty than usual, according to Wansink. Take it a step further by choosing a smaller plate; research shows you’ll end up eating 22 percent less.

9. Rest up

Sleeping guy with alarm clockPrepare for tomorrow’s holiday by getting a good night’s sleep tonight—studies show it can affect how you eat. Researchers at Stony Brook University looked at data from more than 13,000 US teens and found that those who slept fewer than seven hours per night were 25 percent less likely to have eaten fruits and vegetables that day, and 20 percent more likely to have eaten fast food two or more times in the past week. Additional research shows that adults who are sleep deprived tend to eat more high-calorie foods the next day than those who got enough sleep. This is likely because sleep affects the hormones—leptin and ghrelin—responsible for regulating our hunger.

10. Have an exit strategy

Hand on door handle“Sometimes I would get yelled at for not eating a lot. [But] I am able to find a balance [in what I’m eating].”
—Ai Quyen, freshman, Boston, Massachusetts

If all else fails, it’s OK to take a break. Step out of the room, take some deep breaths, and text a friend who gets it. If you need a reminder that you have the right to savor your food, to go back for seconds, and to stop when you’re full, log on to an online support group such as the intuitive eating online community, or screenshot the holiday bill of rights. “This is really about empowerment,” says Tribole. “No one can be the boss of you [when it comes to your body]. No one knows how the food tastes, how hungry you are, [or] what satisfies you. Only you do.”

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Article sources

Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA, CEDRD, author, eating disorder expert, nutrition therapist, and co-creator of Intuitive Eating, Beverly Hills, California.

Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, author, eating disorder expert, nutrition therapist, and co-creator of Intuitive Eating, Newport Beach, California.

Brian Wansink, PhD, behavioral scientist, author, and director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Anderson, L. M., Reilly, E. E., Schaumberg, K., & Dmochowski, S. (2016, March 21). Contributions of mindful eating, intuitive eating, and restraint to BMI, disordered eating, and meal consumption in college students. Eating and Weight Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26243300

Golden, N. H., Schneider, M., & Wood, C., (2016, August 18). Preventing obesity and eating disorders in adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/08/18/peds.2016-1649

Hensrud, D. (2015, April 16). Is too little sleep a cause of weight gain? Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/sleep-and-weight-gain/faq-20058198

Robinson, E., Aveyard, P., Daley, A., & Jolly, K. (2013, February 27). Eating attentively: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/97/4/728.abstract

Stony Brook Newsroom. (2013, June 20). Study reveals link between sleep deprivation in teens and poor dietary choices. Retrieved from http://sb.cc.stonybrook.edu/news/medical/SleepDeprivationinTeensandPoorDietaryChoices.php

Tal, A., & Wansink, B. (2013, June 24). Fattening fasting: Hungry grocery shoppers buy more calories, not more food. JAMA International Journal of Medicine, 173(12), 1146–1148. Retrieved from doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.650