Expert Advice for Healthy Holiday Eating

Emily McDonagh, a certified eating disorder specialist and licensed clinical social worker in Naples, offers tips to approach food in healthier ways

Friends celebrating Christmas. Flat-lay of people eating and talking over festive table with red cloth with champagne, roasted chicken, bundt cake, fruits, decorations, top view. Winter holiday party

Pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, stuffing—these delicious foods are likely to grace the holiday table, though we sometimes feel guilty about eating them. If you’re worried about managing your diet during holiday celebrations, you may be setting yourself up for “food guilt,” which is “feeling bad about eating a particular food or type of food that breaks the rules you have set for yourself around eating,” explains Emily McDonagh, a certified eating disorder specialist and licensed clinical social worker in Naples. “This leads to the diet cycle of trying to make up for the uncomfortable emotion by becoming more strict and rigid around food, leading to overeating.” Read on or a few tips on approaching food in healthier ways—both in and out of the holiday season. 

1. Avoid labeling food as good or bad.

“Foods are just foods,” says McDonagh. She points out that both a salad and a chocolate fudge sundae have nutritional value. “They both have things in [them] that our brains and bodies need and also that bring us emotions, such as joy,” she notes.

2. Try intuitive and mindful eating.

These practices involve being present in the moment during meals, eating when you’re hungry, paying attention to when you’re full, and being kind to yourself.

3. Don’t restrict food or engage in overexercise. 

You may plan to avoid food earlier in the day to over-indulge later, but McDonagh advises against it. “I think being able to regularly and consistently nourish your body and not falling in the trap of engaging in restrictive eating set you up for having a healthier relationship with food,” she says. In the same vein, she recommends against overexercising to allow yourself more food.

Raising Glasses at Dinner Party Close up

4. Accept that you may eat past fullness. 

At times, you’ll eat more than your body needs, and that’s okay. “It happens sometimes because we’re human, right?,” says McDonagh. “And so, we’re not always 100 percent in tune with our body’s and brain’s hunger and fullness at any given moment,” she explains.

5. Set healthy boundaries with family and friends. 

“Unfortunately, we live in a culture and a society where there’s a lot of focus on how people look from the outside,” affirms McDonagh. And particularly when you haven’t seen family or friends for some time, they may be more likely to comment on weight. Still, “nobody actually has a right to talk about your physical body without your permission,” notes McDonagh. She recommends modeling conversations that focus on internal rather than external attributes and setting boundaries when necessary. 

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