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Staying on Track Through the Holidays: Are We Missing The Point?

By Carolina Cawthon, BS, Dietetic Intern & Alison C. Berg, PhD, RDN, LD

You’ve been walking religiously, eating more vegetables, and drinking nothing but water. Now the holidays are here to sabotage all your hard work! At least that’s how it feels. And that’s why you’re here. We all want advice for how to stay on track this time of year, advice to use a smaller plate or have more turkey and less pie. Well, the advice we have for you today may surprise you.

Emerging research suggests that those who use a rigid approach to dieting and eating lose less weight than those who practice a flexible approach1,2. Think of the rigid approach as, “I’m sticking to my diet no matter what. Grandma’s pumpkin pie is no match for my will power! I will eat turkey, plain green beans, and no dessert.” This all-or-nothing approach may backfire, lead to overeating and increase the possibility of long breaks—think days, weeks, or even months—from a carefully planned diet.

The alternative is flexible restraint. This approach makes healthy foods the staples of everyday eating, while foods that add more calories than nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber) to the diet are enjoyed on occasion, and without guilt. Think of the flexible approach as, “I’ve been sticking to my eating plan since our Labor Day camping trip, and I’m doing really great. I’ve even lost a few pounds. So this Thanksgiving, I’m going to enjoy a smaller slice of Grandma’s pumpkin pie and a big scoop of Aunt Maggie’s Mac and Cheese. I’ll send the leftovers home with the kids and immediately return to my normal diet in the morning.” This flexible approach highlights the idea that you are the product of what you do consistently and with persistence.

It isn’t any more likely that enjoying one Thanksgiving dinner will negatively impact your health than eating one kale salad with salmon will positively effect your health. It’s what you do consistently that adds up to make the difference in your health and your waistline!So this year, consider taking a more flexible approach to your holiday. But remember!! It’s just that: a holiDAY.

Thanksgiving is just one day. Christmas is just one day. Hanukkah is eight days, but that’s still only a little over one week out of 52 weeks each year. Where we really need to be putting our effort is the other 98% of the year. So why not relax a little? We all live such hectic, stressful lives. Use the holidays to wind down and enjoy family, friends, and a moment to breathe. You may find that similar to the research we have been discussing, when you take a flexible approach you may be more successful at weight loss and maintaining loss in the long run.

And of course, don’t forget to enjoy some physical activity! Life takes place both around the table and away from it! Make use of that time off of work to enjoy a family game of touch football or a walk through the neighborhood with the dog. Give thanks for the beautiful changing leaves and the cooler but not frigid weather. Remember, when we move more, we live more! Happy holidays to you and yours!


  1. Westenhoefer, J., et al. Cognitive and weight-related correlates of flexible and rigid restrained eating behavior. Eating Behaviors. 2013(14); 69-72.
  2. Westenhoefer, J., et al. Validation of the flexible and rigid control dimensions of dietary restraint. Int J of Eat Disord.1999;26(1):53-64.