For many Americans, overindulging at Thanksgiving is all part of the tradition. According to studies on the subject, the average American gains about a pound each holiday season. (That may not seem like much, but researchers say that those holiday pounds have a tendency to stick around: 10 years later, you’re 10 pounds heavier.) For people who are already overweight, the holidays can be even more trying—one study showed that average weight gain among heavier people was twice that of their thinner peers, meaning the addition of two pounds each holiday season. So, how can you avoid putting on the holiday weight in the first place? TIME spoke with Dr. Michelle May, author of the recent book Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle, who suggests it’s not simply a matter of mind over mashed potatoes.
If after gobbling up all of the turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, and of course, pie heaped with whipped cream, all you can manage in your swollen discomfort is to gingerly waddle to the couch, your overindulgence might actually undermine your ability to enjoy the day. May suggests incorporating more awareness into the holidays—being mindful, “not just of the food, but also of your own body and your experience. I think it even starts before you even pick up a plate, or before you even sit down at the table. Set your intentions, how do I want to feel when I’m done?” Aim for comfortable and satisfied—as opposed to bloated and in pain—from the beginning, and try to fill your plate accordingly.
May also emphasizes the importance of appreciating your food by slowly savoring small bites instead mindlessly working to clean your plate. “When I eat, I want to feel better when I’m done than I did when I started,” she says. That means letting yourself get hungry, and being selective about what you pile on your plate. “I choose the foods that I most want, and I eat them in the way that is most enjoyable,” she says. To ensure that you actually enjoy each bite, May says it’s important to slow down the process. “In truth, your brain can only pay attention to one thing at a time. If you’re chewing a bite while you’re loading more food onto your fork, it’s very likely that your brain is going to pay more attention to the loading process than the eating process—so we’re always eating the next bite.” As a result, you may not truly savor the flavors of each mouthful. “We don’t stop eating until there’s nothing more to load,” she says, and “when we get to the end and we feel full, but strangely unsatisfied.”
She recommends a few simple strategies for avoiding “mindless” eating. First, take breaks every now and then, actually setting your fork down and taking in the surroundings, indulging not just in the food, but the company, ambiance, table setting, etc. And take smaller bites so that you can appreciate the flavor in every morsel as it crosses your tongue, instead of wadding huge bites into your cheeks or against the roof of your mouth, where there aren’t any taste buds. Taking your time will also allow your brain to catch up with your stomach, she says. “There is a lag time between the fullness you experiece in your body and the fullness that finally reaches your head. You really need to slow the whole process down to allow your body to catch up,” she says.
Focusing on what you enjoy and choosing portions that will enable you to appreciate the flavor without overdoing it on volume are key to what May presents as a paradigm shift in how we think about eating. “It’s a subtle shift away from restriction and control to feeling that, ‘I’m in charge of this,’” she says. “We get to be selective. We get to be judicious.” Part of that is knowing what you like and don’t like, and not settling for foods that you don’t enjoy. “Choose the things that you love the most, and skip the things that aren’t really that great,” she says. At the Thanksgiving table, that may mean taking a tiny portion of your aunt’s famous dish that you don’t actually enjoy. As May puts it, “Aunt Mimi’s stuffing isn’t always that great!” So, spoon a small amount onto your plate, “rather than taking a heaping serving and being stuck with this food that you feel obligated to eat.”
At all times of the year, but during the holidays in particular, May says that exercise should be viewed as a way to unwind or stay healthy, not to earn calories, or serve as penitence for overindulging. Exercise shouldn’t be about earning the right to eat, she says. “First off, the math never works in your favor,” and secondly, positioning exercise as punishment can suck the joy out of it, making you less likely to want to do it. Instead, “you should think of it as a way to decompress.”
Of course, viewing exercise as time to unwind, and taking a more mindful approach to how you eat aren’t ideas that are only applicable at Thanksgiving, May says. The holidays shouldn’t be about putting your diet to the test. “If what you’re thinking about doing today isn’t something you could imagine doing for the rest of your life, then don’t bother, because as soon as you go back to your old ways all the weight comes back.” Though years of yo-yo dieting and societal pressure to abstain may have clouded our instincts, “every one of us was born with the ability to eat the right amount of food,” May says, “we’ve just forgotten.”
A return to instinctive eating may seem like a challenge, but May says it’s one that has long-term benefits. “Instinctive eaters eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re satisfied. They eat what they love and they don’t punish themselves with exercise,” she says. If you happen to overdo it on a special occasion, she says, the worst thing you can do is try to compensate by going into deprivation mode, which just starts the yo-yo cycle that leads to binging at the next holiday party, she says. In the end, keeping off the holiday pounds isn’t about dieting, or rigorous self control, it’s simpler than that. It’s about being picky, May says.