It’s OK to indulge on Thanksgiving, dietician says, but beware of these unhealthy eating behaviors

Whether good, bad or somewhere in the middle, we all have a relationship with food — and food-focused holidays like Thanksgiving can bring them to the forefront, along with unhealthy behaviors we may have in response. 

“Complicated relationships (around food) are much more heightened during times like this, where we’re celebrating something that revolves culturally around food,” says Amanda Holtzer, a registered dietician based in New Jersey. “That can really trigger a lot of potentially negative emotions in people with negative or complicated relationships with food.”

Because of diet culture and the pressures and messaging that comes with it, it came be easy to fixate on what we think we should or shouldn’t add to our plates. But Holtzer says indulging in a holiday meal like this isn’t going to have a major impact on your body or your health.

“It is absolutely no big deal,” she says. “I can promise one day of more indulgent eating is not going to result in lasting weight gain (or) derail any progress that you’ve made.”

There are, however, unhealthy behaviors that are common around this time of year that may fall into the category of disordered eating.

Disordered eating exists on a spectrum and isn’t synonymous with having a diagnosed eating disorder, explains Dr. Samantha DeCaro, director of clinical outreach and education at The Renfrew Center, a network of eating disorder treatment facilities.

“At the far end, we have clinical eating disorders. On the other end, we have folks who have a healthy relationship with food and their body. And most of us fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum,” she says, explaining that restricting food, binging, purging and over-exercise can all be considered disordered behaviors. 

“You don’t really have to have an eating disorder to maybe struggle with with some of these issues,” she says. 

Unhealthy behaviors around eating

Restriction: In an effort to “save up” for a big holiday meal, Holtzer says it’s very common to see people skip meals or even restrict the day before an event — but she warns this almost always has a negative effect. 

“By skipping meals and snacks earlier in the day, you set yourself up to become ravenously hungry, and any human being, it is our nature when we’re that hungry, to overeat,” she explains.

DeCaro say in many cases, unhealthy patterns like this may be normalized or even mistakenly labeled as healthy, which can become confusing.

“A lot of these behaviors, not only are they disordered, but they can fuel the cycle of a full-blown eating disorder,” she says. “For example, most people are very surprised to learn that restricting is actually one of the things that can fuel binge-eating disorder. Because when you’re skipping meals, or you’re denying yourself food when you’re hungry, it can set you up to engage in a binge-eating episode because you’re in a state of scarcity, whether it’s physical or psychological scarcity.”

So no matter what you’re going to be eating at your Thanksgiving meal, Holtzer recommends eating a high protein breakfast as well as lunch or a snack if you’re not having dinner until later in the day.

“I never want anyone to not eat or restrict in order to save up or compensate for what they’re going to be doing later on,” she says.

Demonizing foods: Viewing certain foods as “good” and others as “bad” is a mindset we want to shift away from, Holtzer says. 

“Food does not have morality, and it shouldn’t evoke any feelings of shame or fear, just like it shouldn’t evoke any feelings of pride.”

And while she recognizes food is more than just fuel — Thanksgiving highlights how food is also about tradition, family and culture — it’s not meant to have an “emotional bearing on us” in this way, she says.

“We don’t want to attach such strong emotion to food because, at the end of the day, that’s not the role that food is supposed to play in our lives,” she says. 

Body and plate comments: Another behavior to avoid at the holiday gathering? Comments about another person’s body or the food on their plate, which can negatively affect others no matter how well-intentioned. 

“You might want to instinctively give a compliment about someone’s appearance, and there’s even a risk in that because when the first thing you do is compliment how good someone looks, you’re reinforcing the idea that their appearance and their body is important to you,” DeCaro says.

Instead, she encourages people to shift the focus away from appearance and toward how you feel when you see that person — for example, “I’m so happy to see you! How have you been?”

Even comments about yourself — “I’m going to need to go on a diet after this,” for example — are better avoided.

“We really want to steer away from any comments that would induce any kind of guilt or anxiety about eating food,” DeCaro explains.

Holtzer also encourages her patients to shift away from diet or body language, but knows we can’t control what other people say. 

Because of this, if you encounter someone making these comments toward you or someone else, she suggests setting a boundary or simply changing the subject. 

“For example, if someone says, ‘I just started this new keto diet,’ saying something like, ‘Great, what else is new? How’s your family?'” Holtzer says. “It’s really important to remember what you need emotionally and what you feel comfortable doing in order to meet those needs.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association’s toll-free and confidential helpline is available by phone or text at 1-800-931-2237 or by click-to-chat message at For 24/7 crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741-741.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *