Ah, the holidays… They’re the most wonderful time of year! Halloween candy galore. Thanksgiving feasts and scrumptious leftovers. Christmas cookies on every countertop. Not to mention all those holiday party appetizers and cocktails… Yum!
But all those indulgences might make you think that even though the holidays themselves are the best, they’re just about the worst thing for your body. You’ve probably seen the warnings: Beware the calories in your Thanksgiving feast! Cut back on fatty appetizers at holiday parties! Be wary of the grams of sugar in your favorite winter cocktail!
In preparation for the treats aplenty, you might think that going on a little pre-holidays diet is a good idea.
It doesn’t have to be anything crazy, you think. No crash dieting or wacky cleanses. Maybe you’ll cut back on sugar until Christmas. Limit your carbs before pie hits your plate. Perhaps you’ll download a fitness tracking app to keep calories in control before the season starts.
But all of these interventions are probably going to do more harm than good. Your physical health could suffer. Your mental health could suffer. And your weight loss diet could actually cause weight gain. Julie Dillon, registered dietitian, author, and co-host of the Love, Food podcast, talked on the phone with The Daily Meal to explain the multiple reasons why you should really reconsider dieting before this food-heavy holiday season.
Not only are estimates of weight gain much more dramatic than what really goes down (or rather, up) on the scale, but people who do get scared into dieting don’t succeed. “The warnings to diet before the holidays just aren’t supported by science,” Dillon said. “Studies show that we don’t really gain the weight over the holiday season that we think we do. So whatever!” Additionally, the science shows that people who diet or monitor their eating during the season actually don’t keep any of the weight off, anyway. So seriously: What. Ever.
OK, so if the studies are right, you probably won’t gain 10 pounds by January. But what if you want to diet to lose weight, anyway? That’s a really bad idea at any time of year. You’re actually more likely to gain weight if you diet than you are to lose it. “Dieting predicts weight gain,” Dillon said. “It’s the total opposite of what people think.” Not that gaining weight is always necessarily bad — but if you’re trying to avoid it, a diet is not going to help you. “When people tell me, ‘Julie, I’m going on a diet,’ my response will be like, ‘Oh, are you trying to gain some weight?’” Dillon said. “I feel like a jerk, but it’s certainly well established in the research. Going on diets is just going to make your weight go up over time, not down.” This study of holiday dieters specifically showed that people who tried to manage their weight during the season ended up packing more pounds than people who didn’t.
In addition to weight gain, dieting also is a predictor of binge eating. “Dieting sets people up to feel out of control with food and binge eat,” Dillon explained. Research consistently shows that dieters are at a greater risk for binge eating. In adolescents, as well, studies show that people who tend to diet are most likely to binge. Binge eating is, of course, a common symptom of disordered eating — and disordered eating is no joke.
You might think you can diet and fully enjoy the holidays simultaneously, but you actually can’t. “As a dietitian, I know very well that dieting promotes food preoccupation,” Dillon explained, “which is a fancy term for being obsessed and distracted by food. If someone is dieting before the holidays, it’s going to distract them from all the fun, the joy, and the warm-and-fuzzies we’re supposed to have this time of year.” Connecting with family and friends becomes more difficult with food always on the brain — and people may actually miss out on fulfilling experiences as a result. “If you’re celebrating a holiday with a religious side, dieting could distract you from that part of it, too,” Dillon said. “You’ll be focusing on food, which could keep you from really experiencing life.”
Eating more than usual on Thanksgiving? Not a big deal. But eating way less than you want to for a long period of time leading up to Thanksgiving? That makes a huge impact. “If we’re restricting leading up to Thanksgiving, or any holiday, once we’re around all that really yummy food it’s going to be hard to stop eating,” Dillon said. She explains that for non-dieters, eating so much that it hurts on Thanksgiving isn’t as common. “At the meal itself, people who don’t diet often don’t get as overfull as people who do. These people give themselves permission to eat those foods all the time. So it’s just not as big of a deal!”
Even if you do stuff your face, your body knows what to do. “One meal or even a few days out of the year doesn’t keep someone from a healthy life. It’s giving that meal too much power,” Dillon said. If you’ve been eating normally until then (i.e., not dieting), your body knows how to naturally adjust. “The food doesn’t just magically turn into fat or anything dramatic,” Dillon explained. “Your body will gently tell you to eat differently in the days after that large meal. I find that often, people will find themselves craving vegetables. They don’t necessarily make a point to eat more salads intentionally, but the body knows how to balance itself out.”
But those buttery Thanksgiving sides and sugar-loaded pies… Those can’t be good for your health, right? Well, according to Dillon, it’s not that black and white. “One food or eating experience doesn’t decide your health,” she explained. “There are many different layers to it. Health isn’t this one finite goal or state of being we can achieve.” Your social life, emotions, sleep, movement, biological history, genetic makeup and food all factor into the complex thing that is your health. “Connecting with family and friends over a plate of what happens to be dense food is actually quite health-promoting,” Dillon said. “It’s bringing us joy and connecting us to the people we love, both of which are protective to our overall health.”
“From a mental health perspective, dieting has consequences,” explained Dillon. “It disconnects us from living in the moment, living in the present, and it leads to things like food preoccupation.” That’s that obsession with food mentioned earlier. It’s typically characterized by a hyper-focus on foods deemed off-limits, worrying about what and when to eat, and ruminating thoughts focused on planning and preparing food. “Food preoccupation is a super unhealthy thing; it often leads to things like anxiety and depression.” Studies show that dietary restraint (i.e., any diet) is linked to a higher likelihood of depression. Other research shows that low-calorie diets can significantly worsen symptoms of anxiety. The holidays are stressful enough — you don’t want to worsen things by making food into a stressor, too.
People often start to diet because they want to feel more confident and attractive. But contrary to popular belief, Dillon says that studies show dieting is more likely to make your body image worse. So someone going on a diet so that they can feel cuter in their holiday party dress, for instance, might be sabotaging their own success. A better bet? Try one of these tried and true methods for feeling more confident in your skin.
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