5 Ways to Stay "Holiday Balanced."

Who else feels like their sweet tooth is kicking in right about... now? Hi, me too!

The holidays are prime time for all things indulgent, which usually leads into one (or both) of two all-or-nothing feelings:

A) ‘Tis the season for eating ALL the goodies because it doesn’t matter because I’m starting an awesome new diet and exercise regimen starting January 1st. I’ll work it all off then and get back on track. Diet starts Monday, am I right?!

B) ‘Tis the season for saying NO. I’m going full Keto, paleo, South Beach, Weight Watchers… all of ‘em. I’m going to say no to everything that has extra calories, fat, and carbs because they’re bad and don’t fit my diet. And if I slip up, I’m upping my exercise to two-a-days to make up for it.

Do either of these sound familiar? It’s ok if they do, and it’s ok if you’ve never noticed this kind of self talk until now either. But whether you realize it or not, both of these behaviors (total abandonment and total avoidance) can lead you into a place I'm sure you'd rather not be while spending time with family and friends (and come January 1st). A reminder I've been sharing often is there is a way to indulge with intention so you feel great about your choices and how they make your body and mind feel while still enjoying those more special holiday treats and family recipes. The goal is to not even entertain getting to a place where you feel like you need to “work it off” or avoid certain things. It’s really about finding a balance that stems from listening to your body to both indulge and practice mindfulness around food. Honoring that sweet tooth and finding movement that makes you feel good instead of as a form of punishment or repayment, for example. This is what I call “Holiday Balanced.” In this post, I’m sharing five ways to find it and stay there.

My very favorite treat during the holiday season is hands-down a fruit crumble.

My very favorite treat during the holiday season is hands-down a fruit crumble.

1. Practice intention.

Have your treat! If there's something special you look forward to all year, go for it. For me it’s always a crumble (with real sugar, none of that stevia). If you are focused on a diet or food rules that dictate what is “good” and “bad” for you, it's going to take away from actually enjoying your experience. In fact, it takes away from this to such a degree that you may find yourself on a path that is 180 degrees in the opposite direction. You’ll likely end up unsatisfied because you didn’t have what you actually wanted, or replaced it with an “approved food,” which will in turn likely lead to overeating at some point to find that satisfaction. This almost always results in feelings of guilt, frustration, anger… you see the pattern. Not to mention, you may have mentally skipped out on time with your loved ones trying to stay away from whatever that “bad” food was. So how do you deal with this? Practice intention. What that looks like: Assess what you really want and what will actually satisfy you, listen to how hungry you are, choose a portion that reflects that, totally enjoy it, and move on feeling satisfied. That last step is the most important step. If you’re satisfied with what you ate, and are truly listening to your body’s hunger and satiety cues, you’re less likely to overdo it later to compensate. This leaves time to enjoy the food that you wanted to in the first place as well as the time with your loved ones.

This goes the other way too. If you’re in the mindset that everything resets come January 1st, and that you have the green light to eat and do whatever you want until then, it’s likely that you’re not going to feel your best either. You may feel guilty, overly full, or out of control, which will inevitably lead to restricting when you get “back on track” in the New Year with excessive exercising and dieting that’s neither realistic or sustainable for the long term. And the cycle starts again. Neither one of these behaviors is healthy or balanced.

If using intention in this way seems a bit scary, you’re not alone. One way to start off is to think of what foods are really special to you around the holidays (regardless of the amount of calories, etc. they have) as well as those that feel less special. These are the ones you may eat just because they’re there, but feel worse after doing so because it wasn’t something you truly wanted in the first place. Perhaps your portion ends up a bit larger than your hunger levels actually needed because you were, again, looking for that satisfaction. My tip: Stick with the special stuff, and ditch the ones that may be more like those "mindless" treats. If that feels like a hurdle in itself, my Real Good Guide to Healthy Holiday Swaps gives a few tips to "healthifying" those less-than-special dishes if they’re a challenge to let go of. Check it out for free by contacting me or entering your email into the pop-up.

2. Don’t restrict to compensate.

Restricting, including skipping meals or eating less than what your hunger cues tell you, will likely end up enhancing cravings, overeating, and feelings of frustration and disappointment later on. How do you get around this? By trying to treat the holiday season like any other season because in reality, these foods are available all year round and there’s no need to go fast so you can go HAM on any one meal.

This is a scenario I see so often, so I’ll walk you through it:

The situation: Holiday party tonight. I know I’m going to overdo it there, I always do. I’m just going to not eat all day beforehand so I won’t go over on my calories for the day.

The reality: Not eating all day leads to extreme hunger which leads to overeating at the party which leads to feelings of intense guilt which leads to restricting the next day which ultimately leads to overdoing it again which leads to self-hate, etc, etc.

The advice I give: Have a normal day before the party. Eat what you would normally eat for breakfast, snacks, and lunch, honoring your hunger and satiety cues. Do not go to the party starving. Intentionally choose foods/drinks at the party that will satisfy your current level of hunger, or a mindful portion of a treat you look forward to all year, enjoy it, and move on. If it helps, physically move away from anything that may leave you feeling worse for interacting further with (food, drinks, etc.). With this approach, you’re more likely to have an appropriate response to food in terms of satiety and stop when you are full instead of going all out after a day long fast.

Restriction also includes exercising excessively to “work off” what you ate or plan on eating. Why is this dangerous? It can lead to feeling that punishment mentality, as in: “I ate this, so I have to punish myself in the gym so I don’t gain weight (or any other consequence).” My advice? Incorporate movement during the season that you actually love. Go for walks with family (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, shopping is cardio), try a new fitness studio to treat yourself, or look up some free YouTube videos to use when you’re traveling. But do these things only because they feel good (and because you’re probably sitting a little more often than you normally would these months), and not to compensate for having a few extra calories here and there.

3. Get rid of food rules.

Do you assign labels to food during the holidays? Mashed potatoes are bad, kale salad is good? While different foods certainly have a higher nutritional value than others, I’m going to challenge you to throw out the notion that there are “right or wrong” or “good or bad foods.” Don't let food rules rule how you eat because this inevitably leads to restriction and the entire downward spiral that follows. It’s absolutely fine to acknowledge that some foods are healthier than other foods, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t ever eat the things that aren’t. If this is a challenge for you, you're not alone. Practicing mindful eating can be valuable in getting there. Read on to my next point to learn how to incorporate it without needing to go all Namaste on your family.


4. Try a Mindful Eating practice.

What is Mindful Eating? According to The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME), its practice is intended to bring about an awareness of our actions, thoughts, feelings, motivations, and insight into the roots of health and contentment. It makes you more aware of your internal and external environments surrounding the activity of eating, and brings about a balance between pleasure associated with food and good nutrition in order to benefit the body’s overall metabolic processes.

If that sounds a little woo woo for you, there are really concrete ways to incorporate a Mindful Eating practice to reap the benefits. Trying to acknowledge your responses to food without judgement, and using your awareness of how hungry or satisfied you are to guide your eating decisions are ways to start it off. These sound familiar because it’s what I’ve been repeating over the previous three points.

I’ll say this about 100 times during this blog post: The first step is to listen to your body. This takes practice, so try to avoid beating yourself up if it proves to be more difficult than you thought it would.

If you're unfamiliar with the practice of Mindful Eating, a good place to start is The Center for Mindful Eating, or reach out to a knowledgeable dietitian. 

5. Be nice to yourself.

Have patience with yourself. Know that the holiday season is one of, if not the most, stressful times of the year. Emotions are running high, schedules are jam-packed, and it feels as if you’re always on the go. If you ever feel out of control in one way or another, take a pause. Take a breath. Acknowledge how you feel, and visualize what you can do to change that. If it helps to journal these feelings, go for it. Just avoid beating yourself up for a choice you made, just pick up where you left off and move on. Allow yourself room to be human, because being a holiday robot and eating only cauliflower mashed potatoes isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.



Approaching holiday eats and treats in this balanced way helps to get rid of that diet mentality, or that "all or none" feeling that leads to the desperate "need" to diet come January 1st. Why let anything get in the way of enjoying your time spent with family and friends this year?

Emmy Bawden