Hey friends! Today I have advice & a study for you on how to stop overeating between (especially before) diets. Sometimes, the overeating gets so bad that it completely counteracts the diet–at least that used to be how it was for me!
In this study, the researchers looked at how much weight was gained over the holidays by dieters versus normal controls (nondieters). And, more importantly, what kinds of dieting habits these groups had.
The dieters were people who had successfully lost weight in the past and kept it off for years–so they really knew how to diet. Before the holiday, many of them reported having “extremely strict” holiday diet and exercise plans in place: they had solid plans to control their portions, cut out treats, and exercise like crazy. Many of them also lost weight before the holidays to have a safety net in the event of holiday weight gain.
Sounds like a lot of people around November, right?
Not a single one of the 100 nondieters, on the other hand, reported having strict diet or exercise plans. None of them reported losing any weight to prepare for the holidays, either.
So the dieters were completely focused on weight loss, had strict plans in place to do that, and even preemptively lost weight to have a holiday safety net. And the nondieters didn’t care about weight or dieting much at all.
Guess who gained more weight?
During the holiday, the dieters reported exercising much more, and successfully sticking to their strict diet plans. They followed self-imposed rules, like only eating at home and not allowing snacking after dinner. They intentionally stopped eating before they were full, focused on their portions, and weighed themselves more often.
And yet, they gained weight: almost half of them gained more than 2lbs. Only 15% of the nondieters, on the other hand, gained weight.
The kicker is that even a month later, in February, three times as many dieters were still holding onto that holiday weight than nondieters.
But why did this happen?
The researchers found that paying less attention to their weight and dieting over the holidays predicted more weight gain in the dieters. And yet, the dieters were still paying more attention to their weight and diet overall than the nondieters, so that can’t explain why they gained more.
This seemingly paradoxical result really shows how dieting affects you: if you’re used to dieting, then the second you take a break from completely obsessing over your weight and diet plans, you start to gain weight.
So, what does this mean for you?
The only way dieting really works in the long term is if you maintain complete control 100% of the time, with no binges or overeating or slip ups. And that isn’t realistic. It’s usually more like a cycle of doing well for a little while, then overeating, then trying to make up for it by dieting more strictly, which leads to binging… rinse and repeat.
Dieting just doesn’t work in the long term.
So what can you do?
Be like the nondieters: try intuitive eating (here’s my post on how to do that). Don’t focus on your weight. Don’t make strict diet plans. Don’t impose eating or exercise rules on yourself. Instead, just learn to tune into your body’s signals so you can eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full–that’s it!
It takes some time to escape from a diet mentality and the cycle of strict dieting and slip-ups, but it is so worth it.
And if you want to lose weight, just focus on eating whole, plant-based foods. (No need to cut out treats though!) There’s a ton of research that shows that eating this way, without any dieting, leads to effortless weight loss.
The holidays should be a time that you can spend focusing on loved ones, relaxation, and self-care. Not a time that you have to spend all your mental energy on keeping up your diet.
The holiday season is a mostly wonderful time… but between the fun of getting together with loved ones, having more free time, and being surrounded by holiday decor, there lurks the fear of seemingly inevitable weight gain.
I spent years and years being so afraid of weight gain, and so desperately planning my post-holiday diet, that it was hard to enjoy the holidays at all. Especially Thanksgiving, because the whole day is so focused on food. But now that I’ve learned how to escape that cycle, I want to share some tips to help you stop worrying about your weight this holiday season too, so you can focus on what’s important instead 🙂
1. Eat more (of some things).
Sounds counterintuitive, I know.
But the science is clear: some foods are more satiating than others. Studies have found that if you eat 250 calories of potatoes, for example, you’ll feel more than twiceas full as you would from eating 250 calories of cheese1. And as a result, you also eat much less after eating potatoes than after eating cheese.
And you can take advantage of this fact to help you pace yourself during your holiday meals.
If you’re mindful about having a good helping of those satiating foods (think starches & veggies), it’ll balance out the high calorie density, low satiety foods (think meat, cheese, & desserts), and help prevent you from overeating.
So what exactly does that look like? Try having a dish as close as possible to a plant based whole food–maybe mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, a veggie side, or even stuffing–that you eat first or that you serve yourself extra of, to give you that baseline of satiation before going for seconds (or thirds) on everything else.
Another strategy is to have some snacks or appetizers before the big meal. This can help by making sure you don’t go into dinner feeling ravenous and overstuffing yourself before your brain can catch up.
2. Don’t plan to diet beforehand or afterwards.
This is a big one. Almost everyone who has ever dieted plans to diet before and/or after the holidays. But it’s exactly that mindset that leads to overeating and weight gain in the first place.
In fact, studies show that people who are most successful at losing weight in general are the ones who gain the most weight during the holidays2.
Sounds crazy, right?
A few years ago I would have thought so too, but now it makes perfect sense.
First, we know that dieting leads to yo-yo weight gain and loss in the long term. So dieting before the holidays is the perfect way to set yourself up to go into binge mode during the holidays and gain all that weight back… and then some3.
Second, when you go into the holiday season expecting to gain weight, that’s exactly what happens. It’s a very easy self-fulfilling prophecy, because the expectations are all in your mind, and it’s your mind that causes you to overeat. (Your body never asks for that!) When you start eating, you probably have negative emotions about how much weight you’re going to gain. And we know that for people who diet, negative emotions lead to more overeating.
It’s a vicious cycle that leaves you miserable during the holidays, and heavier (and still miserable) afterwards.
So what should you do instead? Ditch the diets, and start eating intuitively instead. (Check out my guide for how to get started.) Your mind and waistline (and probably your loved ones too) will thank you.
3. Plan to make yourself more holiday foods afterwards.
Part of what makes us overeat at holiday meals is that the food is scarce. Maybe it’s even “forbidden” the rest of the year.
If you don’t eat that pecan pie today, you might not get to eat it again until next year.
But the reality is that the only reason holiday food is scarce or forbidden is if YOU decide that you aren’t allowed to have it at other times. And that makes it so much more alluring. After all, there’s a reason they say that the forbidden fruit is sweetest.
And, science shows that people who avoid eating certain foods for dieting purposes end up overeating them later3.
If you don’t allow yourself to have certain foods most of the year, you end up overeating them even more during the holiday season because you know you’ll be deprived of those foods again soon.
This is not your last chance for pecan pie, so you don’t need to eat it like it’s your last time having pecan pie.
So this tip is an easy one: just allow yourself to have your favorite foods. (This is a good anti-weight-gain tip in general, not just for the holidays!) Either make some of your holiday favorites before the season starts to test out some recipes, or schedule a day after the holidays to make or buy those holiday foods you always crave. (And, of course, save leftovers from the holiday meal itself!)
Or best of all, go all out with intuitive eating and just eat what you want when you want it. No scheduling necessary. That’s how I’ve lost weight and maintained it–it just works.
With this tip, you’ll go into your holiday meals knowing that the pecan pie really isn’t that rare–and if you know there’s more where that came from, you’ll feel much less of an urge to overeat it.
(Can you guess that I really love pecan pie? 😉 )
4. Treat it like any other meal.
Try changing your expectations going into your holiday meals. If you don’t treat them like a big daunting event where you’re expected to overeat, you’ll be less likely to overeat.
Like the last tip, this is also about reducing the scarcity of the food: the goal is to get rid of that feeling that the Thanksgiving food (or other holiday food) is a limited resource. Don’t treat the food like it’s the special part of the day. That’s not what makes a holiday a holiday.
It’s the loved ones, the focus on what you’re thankful for, or even just a day off from work that makes it a holiday.
If you want to create something special and rewarding in your day, in place of focusing on the meal, you could also try treating yourself to some self care: is there a book you’ve been wanting to read, a videogame you’ve been dying to play, or some bubble bath you’ve been wanting to try? Treat yourself or set aside some time for yourself during the day to make it feel special.
5. Shift your focus.
Changing your mindset is so powerful. Mindset makes us overeat in the first place, and mindset can be the reason we stop.
This holiday season, try shifting your focus. Instead of thinking about how food will affect you and your body, focus on who you’re sharing that food with. Focus on why you’re there eating a holiday meal in the first place.
And, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, try replacing guilt, shame, and fear with gratitude. Gratitude that you have food to eat, loved ones to eat it with, and a body that allows you to enjoy the holidays. Maybe your body doesn’t look exactly how you want it to (yet), but try to appreciate it for what it allows you to do.
After all, practicing gratitude has been shown again and again to make people happier4, and even to improve their body image5.
And with that, I wish you all a very happy holiday season. I hope that these tips can help you enjoy it even more. ❤
Once you’ve done intuitive eating for awhile, your weight tends to be more of a curiosity than anything to actually care about.
Until it isn’t.
I didn’t weigh myself much at all while learning to eat intuitively, because the number on the scale used to be a bit of an obsession, and a major source of guilt and shame.
But after feeling firmly settled into my unrestricted eating and body positivity habits, I started to weigh myself again… both out of curiosity, and because my fiancé is always talking about his day-to-day weight fluctuations. We’re scientists and we love our data, for science’s sake. (Did running after that high salt meal negate the water retention? Did we actually manage to lose weight on that beach vacation from all the swimming?)
But today I realized that at some point, it stopped just being data. I’ve noticed that my weight on the scale is affecting how I see myself again, and daily fluctuations are having an influence on my mood.
I’ve been lifting weights more, so this is especially damaging because I want to gain muscle. But my lifelong conditioning is that weight going up = bad.
But either way, why should an arbitrary, irrelevant number have an effect on my mood?
So I’ve stopped weighing myself.
If thoughts about my weight creep in, I can just shake them off by deciding that I think I look fine. Instead of the other way around where I let the scale decide how I feel, when otherwise I would have felt happy about how I look.
And, most importantly, I remind myself that it doesn’t really matter either way if I gained a bit of weight.
Would my career suffer if I gained weight? Not at all.
Would my fiancé leave me? Nope.
Would it really affect my life in any way besides my own self-perceptions, which I can easily change? No!
(Now, I know there are some careers and circumstances where gaining a bit of weight could negatively impact your life. But still, feeling bad about yourself won’t prevent it at all. Feeling good about yourself and nourishing your body with satiating foods will prevent it1.)
I’ve found that the key to maintaining intuitive eating is to be mindful of what kinds of thought patterns and habits you might fall into. Some of us may naturally trend back towards bad habits and thought patterns if we’re not actively maintaining our new, better patterns. And that’s okay!
For some of us, thoughts are like teeth that way… without a retainer, they slowly drift back towards old, pre-braces patterns. It’s worth having to pop in a retainer occasionally to avoid being stuck with painfully crowded teeth. We don’t feel bad about ourselves because our teeth do that, it’s just how it is!
So every once in awhile, take a moment to self reflect about your feelings towards yourself and food. Check in with yourself to find any bad habits or worries that are forming, and stop them in their tracks. Better yet, replace them with something good: freedom to eat, self love, and good food.
Here’s a great book on intuitive eating for those looking to get started. I’m also starting a series of every-other-week posts on how to eat intuitively, both for beginners and for those facing issues later on the process (none of us are perfect!), so subscribe to stay tuned!
See my weight loss videos for scientific research on how to lose weight without restricting.