For years I told clients to take Thanksgiving as a free day. I had the best of intentions — with so many trainers and articles coming out in November about how people should restrict and diet on Thanksgiving, I needed to say something about how silly that is.
It usually started with something like “You eat so clean the rest of the year, one day doesn’t matter!”
I was only half right.
It’s true that one day never has any impact on your results. One day eating a ton, or one day eating “perfect,” single days and single meals make no difference. It’s the average of weeks, months, even quarters that have an impact on your weight loss results.
The mistake, actually was the concept of free days in general. I didn’t realize I was setting up a much bigger problem for them, and that it would have an increasing effect on all of their eating through the holidays.
Black and White Diet Rules are the #1 Predictor of Weight Loss Failure
Ok, so actually the study stated “Black and white diet rules are the #1 psychological predictor of weight loss failure,” but I thought it sounded like a better title the other way.[1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]
Obviously, the biology of losing weight is very simple — eat less and move more. Unfortunately, we aren’t robots, and understanding the physiology of weight loss makes no difference in our results. That’s the primary reason that diets don’t work — having a set of rules makes no difference.
What point are rules if the majority of people can’t follow them?
The more strict people are with diet rules, the less likely people are able to stick to them long term.
That’s where psychology comes in.
What Food is For
There are three reasons people eat food:
- To satisfy physical hunger
- For hedonic pleasure
- To numb emotions or stress
Eating for Hunger
If a person is simply eating to satisfy hunger, they also stop when they are full, they don’t snack, and they never gain weight. Mostly, people don’t have the skills required to even notice their hunger and fullness cues, after years of dieting.
That being said, when people can learn to eat based on hunger and fullness cues, they lose weight, like their body more, and feel an unbelievable amount of peace around eating.
Eating for Pleasure
This is when you eat treats or snacks because you really like them. This could be a date night, it could be your grandma’s famous chocolate chip cookies, or it could be Thanksgiving.
It’s normal to eat for pleasure sometimes. To deny ourselves any kind of pleasure is inhuman.
The flip-side, though, is if food is the only source of pleasure or reward we have in our lives, it quickly gets out of control.
Eating to Numb Feelings
This is where many people get caught. It’s actually ok to eat your feelings once in a while. The danger is that — for many people — it becomes the only way cope with emotional pain, unwanted thoughts, stress, or boredom. When it’s the only tool in the toolbox for that, we’re screwed.
Thanksgiving and Food
The thing about Thanksgiving, is that we want some amount of eating to satisfy hunger, and some amount of eating for pleasure.
You probably want to use some intuitive eating skills:
- Put your fork down between bites (eat slowly)
- Notice how your food tastes and enjoy it
- Notice yourself getting full, and stop
- Notice diminishing returns and stop
These are all really cool skills because they do two things: First, they help you enjoy your food more. Food enjoyment is about actually noticing how the food looks, smells, and tastes. It’s about being mindful of your five senses, at least some of the time while you are eating. Second, you stop before you feel totally grossly full and pass out.
You also probably want to eat some food for pleasure:
- Your favorite Thanksgiving foods
That’s all very, very cool, and totally appropriate. The person who does zero eating for pleasure on Thanksgiving is pretty weird. If you think about your personal values, the kind of person you want to be in your life, and what matters to you, I’m sure that includes eating some pie for dessert.
Why That Isn’t A Free Day
A free day is predicated on the idea that you have diet rules that you must rigidly adhere to, and then you set aside one day per week for food enjoyment and a free-for-all.
Interestingly, with diet rules, you don’t spend any time noticing your own hunger and fullness signals. Similarly, you have no pleasure eating at all, and when you do it’s “bad.”
Again, the whole “clean vs dirty eating” thing, or “bad vs. good foods” causes weight loss failure. People white knuckle the rules until they inevitably snap, then they eat way, way more than they enjoy, because it’s their “last time.” It’s a recipe for starting a cycle of restricting and binging.
On the flip-side, if you guide your decisions from the kind of person you want to be, you find that there aren’t hard and fast rules. Things are often context dependent. Sometimes you have dessert, and really enjoy it. Other times you skip dessert, and it’s fine.
Why Skill Practice is the Answer This Thanksgiving
Skill practice isn’t a rigid set of rules. Skills are just tools you can employ, or not employ, at any time you want. For example, if you have the skill to play guitar, you can pick up a guitar and play it when you want to. But you aren’t a bad person the rest of the time when you aren’t playing guitar. It’s just a skill.
Similarly, food skills like putting your fork down between bites, noticing when full, distinguishing between hunger and stress, and so on, are skills you can use or not use.
Often, my clients may be working on 5 to 7 skills in a given week. For Thanksgiving Day, they might actually just dial it back to one skill.
For example, one of my clients is working on these skills:
- Putting the fork down between bites
- Waiting 10 minutes before having seconds
- Practice saying “no” sometimes and “yes” other times to treats
- Eating balanced meals
- Using the 3 questions to distinguish between hunger and stress between meals
- No “fear of missing out” can have delicious food any time she wants
But for Thanksgiving, she is only working on one:
- Put the fork down between bites
She isn’t “off her diet” or “taking a free day.” She’s actually still practicing her skill(s) — but she’s only practicing a skill that enhances how much she enjoys her food. It also just has a byproduct of having her notice, and trust herself, when she actually feels full. That way, she has more energy to connect with her family while they are in town.
Maximum enjoyment of food + Maximum enjoyment of the people she cares about
That’s the kind of skill practice that fits all of her personal values. Connecting with family. Feeling good in her body. And enjoying the wonderful food on a special day. All three at the same time.
Maybe Your Thanksgiving Can Be Just That Simple
It really could come down to just putting your fork down between bites.
Take some time and really enjoy every bite. Pick out the flavors. Notice the smells. Look at how beautiful the food looks on the plate.
Pause and connect with people you love. Listen. Ask questions. Share yourself. Laugh.
People tend to think of food and holidays as being in opposition to their fitness goals, but that’s not accurate. Food and holidays are in opposition to diet rules. If you make your food decisions from your personal values and how they relate to food skills, it can all work together. That’s how you get weight loss results that last a lifetime — your life fits into your skill practice.
- Byrne, S. M., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2004). Psychological predictors of weight regain in obesity. Behaviour research and therapy, 42(11), 1341-1356.
- Palascha, A., van Kleef, E., & van Trijp, H. C. (2015). How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain?. Journal of health psychology, 20(5), 638-648.
- Blomquist, K. K., & Grilo, C. M. (2011). Predictive significance of changes in dietary restraint in obese patients with binge eating disorder during treatment. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 44(6), 515-523.
- Raimo, S., Asko, L., & Leila, T. (2014). Flexibility in weight management. Eating behaviors.
- Meule, A., Westenhöfer, J., & Kübler, A. (2011). Food cravings mediate the relationship between rigid, but not flexible control of eating behavior and dieting success. Appetite, 57(3), 582-584.
- Smith, C. F., Williamson, D. A., Bray, G. A., & Ryan, D. H. (1999). Flexible vs. rigid dieting strategies: Relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 32(3), 295-305.
- Westenhoefer, J., Stunkard, A. J., & Pudel, V. (1999). Validation of the flexible and rigid control dimensions of dietary restraint. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 26(1), 53-64.
- Timko, C. A., & Perone, J. (2005). Rigid and flexible control of eating behavior in a college population. Eating behaviors, 6(2), 119-125.
- Stewart, T. M., Williamson, D. A., & White, M. A. (2002). Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 38(1), 39-44.