License to Eat: Why You Shouldn’t Deprive Yourself This Thanksgiving

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This Thanksgiving, have your mashed potatoes and eat them too.

That advice, surprisingly, doesn’t come from you grandmother but from more dieticians and nutritionists who are actually helping people to maintain healthy weights. Yes, in addition to the usual roll-out of “How to Slim-down Your Thanksgiving” and tips on how to avoid packing on the pounds, some health experts are advising that we go a little easier on ourselves over the holidays. They’re certainly not recommending that you scarf up everything you see, but the key to keeping cravings and temptations in check may be to give in to some — in moderation.

That advice is based on some solid research. Studies show, for example, that when you put certain foods on a do-not-eat list, people end up wanting, and eating them more, and actually gaining weight. A 2012 study by researchers at Tel Aviv University found that dieters who ate a pastry every day lost more weight than dieters who avoided them completely. While both groups of dieters were on a low-calorie diet, the pastry group ate a cookie, slice of cake, doughnut or piece of chocolate every morning. Although by the end of the 16 week study, both groups had lost an average of 33 lbs, the group who treated themselves to dessert every morning went on to lose another 15 lbs on average, and reported feeling less hunger and cravings during that time. And researchers from the University of British Columbia reported that when people are told certain foods or objects are forbidden, the brain concentrates on them more than usual.

Other studies in mice have found that when the animals were only enticed with the occasional bit of sugar, then deprived of it, they were more likely to overindulge in sugar once it was brought back into their diet.

“Holiday asceticism makes no sense, because it ruins the holiday and is too little, too late anyway,” says Dr. David Katz, the director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and author of the new book Disease Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well. Watching everyone else dig into the feast is going to be tough if you insist on sitting it out. “The problem is when we deprive ourselves of foods that we love, it makes us want them more. Then, when we finally do have them, we overeat them. We lose the ability to control how much we eat of those foods,” says Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet.

But the key to this approach is maintaining a balance between what you eat with physical activity to burn off the added calories. “I, for one, will be enjoying a feast on Thanksgiving,” says Katz. “Of course, I will also spend a lot of time hiking, biking and playing football with my family and friends over the holiday weekend.”

So go ahead and substitute the sour cream with fat-free Greek yogurt if you like, or skip the mashed potatoes. But don’t feel so bad if you don’t. If you’re watching your portions, and not overloading your plate with gravy, it’s okay to have the higher calorie staples over the holidays.

“My whole thing about the holidays is that I am not big on making every dish a low-calorie dish. I’m not against it, but I feel like people should really look at a holiday as just a day. They should be able to enjoy the foods that are served. And just not over do it,” says Gans. “What I always encourage is that people enjoy the foods that they love and they learn to watch the portion size. I find if they don’t eliminate it, and still include it, when they do it eat it, they can be satisfied with the smaller portion.”

Katz says that overeating high calorie, fatty or sugary foods consistently makes the body only want more. So dipping into them every once in a while may actually help to minimize cravings and release you from a dependence on decadence. “The real defense of health resides with taking good care of yourself routinely, year round. If you do that, you can certainly afford a bit of indulgence at holiday time and,  it’s likely even your indulgence will be fairly salutary,” says Katz.

And if you do overdo it this holiday season, just start fresh the next day. “I recommend, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. [People] should forget about feeling guilty and they should get right back on track. That is the most important thing they should do. They should not all of a sudden get a diet mentality because that won’t work. They need to leave it behind,” says Gans.

Not worrying about what you can eat, and what you shouldn’t eat can also divert your attention away from food, and that can lead to a healthier relationship with your diet as well. The holidays are about spending time with friends and family, and food is part of that enjoyment — not obsessing about what’s on the table.