Holiday Eating: It's About Enjoyment, Not Guilt
all information

Holiday Eating: It's About Enjoyment, Not Guilt

We are in the midst of the holiday season! This also means we are in the midst of holiday cookies, cakes, stuffing, sauces, and hams. Trying to eat healthy foods can be difficult during this time of year, making some of us feel guilty when we veer from our usual meals. But should we feel guilty? And should we substitute reduced-fat goodies for traditional holiday fare?

"I guess in principle it is a reasonable idea for people to cook lower-fat during the holidays," says Kelly Brownell, PhD, a Yale University professor of psychology who serves as director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.

"But it is swimming against the tidal wave of the very high-fat way people like to eat at this time of year," he points out. "They feel, rightfully so, that it is a time to treat themselves." But, he comments, attitude really counts.

"If people say, 'This is a time for celebration and I love these foods and I only have them once in a while,' then I do not think it is a problem," he remarks. But if they feel shame and guilt, they will not get to enjoy the food.

Cutting Yourself Some Slack

Mark Hegsted, professor emeritus of nutrition at Harvard University's School of Public Health, has done a great deal of research on the relationship between diet and heart disease. Regarding low-fat cooking, he says, "My inclination is not to take it too seriously at this time of the year. The meals we want to eat have got to be good. If you can find low-fat ones that are satisfying, fine."

Gail Zyla, a registered dietitian and coauthor of the popular college text, Personal Nutrition , believes that Christmas belongs in the 20% part of the 80/20 rule.

"Eighty percent of the time you try to do things 'right,'" she explains. "Give yourself a little more room 20% of the time. It allows for the stick-with-it-ness people need" to follow a healthy diet.

Zyla points out the 20% part of the rule helps people refrain from overeating throughout the holiday season.

"A lot of people go hog wild for the entire month of December," she notes. "If people were a little more relaxed about it and a little more forgiving, they would not feel the need to go nuts and then get rigid in January."

The way for people to relax themselves into the 20% fraction of the rule, she says, is to remind themselves that "this isn't the last time that I am going to be able to eat a cookie, or have some pie, or eat a little gravy." That way, they "do not overdo it because they do not feel that they are stockpiling for the whole next year."

Balance Can Be Key

Rather than thinking of lower-fat dishes as things to make instead of the dishes you really love, people should simply look at them as possible opportunities to make new dishes that "are just good for their own sake and on their own merits," notes Jill Melton, MS, RD, former editor-in-chief of Cooking Light magazine.

Melton also points out that no matter what high-fat, high-calorie dishes you make, there is probably going to be some naturally low-fat fare on the table, too. "Fresh sautéed green beans alongside the scalloped potatoes with cheese and cream," as she puts it. In other words, there tends to be at least some balance, even on the most weighty of holiday dinner tables.

As Zyla succinctly puts it, "People should not beat themselves up over Christmas dinner. That is the last thing anyone needs to feel guilty about. Kick back and enjoy."


American Dietetic Association


Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition

Healthy Canadians


Boyle M, Zyla G. Personal Nutrition. Minneapolis, MN: West Publishing Company; 1996.

Last reviewed May 2011 by Brian Randall, MD

Last updated Updated: 5/24/2011

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Your Health and Happiness