Whether you’re attending a huge family reunion or laying low at home, one part of the holiday season that’s pretty consistent for everyone is the food. So. Much. Food. From five-course feasts and fruitcakes to all things peppermint and gingerbread, food is always front and center this time of year.
But as festive and delicious as all of these indulgent meals and treats may be, they can often cause a lot of stress—especially if you’re health-conscious or struggle with your relationship with food.
In many cases, our already-high stress levels this time of year are compounded by our anticipation that we’ll make choices we deem “less healthy” during the holiday season, says Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N, a dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe.
A slew of internal and environmental factors make our ability to approach food with mindfulness and moderation even more difficult around the holidays. And as a result, all sorts of myths and misinformation around food abound. Here, experts set the record straight on a few major holiday season eating myths, so you can truly enjoy the special roles that family recipes and shared meals play during this time of year.
Myth 1: “You should skip meals to save calories.”
The idea that it’s okay to restrict your food intake to “save” calories for a big meal or party is a holiday eating myth that has to go for good.
“Skipping meals often leads to increased hunger and cravings, so when mealtime comes around, you’ll be more likely to overindulge than you would if you’d had a decent-sized, healthy meal or snack beforehand,” Blakely says.
This habit may often leave you irritable and contribute to a vicious cycle of worrying about what you’re eating and then making food choices you don’t feel good about, adds Roseanne Schnell, C.D.N., a nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe.
Instead, stick to your regular eating habits and focus on balanced meals that leave you feeling satisfied and relaxed. Dietitian Sarah Koszyk, M.A., R.D.N., author of 365 Snacks for Every Day of the Year, also recommends eating a protein-rich snack (like Greek yogurt with fruit and granola or hummus with carrots and cucumbers) before going to an event. This way, you show up feeling satisfied and can eat more mindfully.
Of course, if you do overeat, it’s not something to stress about. “Our bodies are smart, and they know how to self-regulate,” says dietitian Christine Byrne, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N. “If you overeat, the best thing you can do is forgive yourself and move on.” Wake up the following day and have your regular meals as if it never happened.
Myth 2: “Post-holiday cleansing will help you lose weight.”
If you gained weight during the holiday, you might be tempted to go on some sort of cleanse or diet when the new year rolls around—but don’t do it, Schnell urges.
Trying to stick to restrictive diets sets you up for failure since you’ll eventually run out of willpower. As a result, you may overeat and then feel guilty, she explains. Not helpful if what you really need is to regain a sense of balance when it comes to food.
Not to mention, research shows that although cleanses can result in initial weight loss, you’ll likely gain weight when you resume your typical eating patterns. Even if you gained a few pounds during the holidays, returning to sustainable, healthy habits is ultimately your best move.
Myth 3: “Substituting ingredients will prevent weight gain.”
Consider yourself warned about this holiday season eating myth: Trying to outsmart your brain and taste buds by swapping various ingredients in your favorite once-a-year recipes can sometimes backfire. Often, doing this is a recipe for feeling unsatisfied with your “healthified” recipe, which may lead you to overeat, Schnell says.
Something else to consider: Sugar-free and fat-free alternatives that may sound appealing are often filled with other food additives to make them taste good, according to Blakely. “Sugar-free foods may contain more salt or fat or have artificial sweeteners,” she says. “Fat-free foods, meanwhile, often have more salt or sugar.”
If you really love apple pie, for example, just enjoy it with all of its traditional ingredients, Schnell recommends. “In most cases, you’re better off having a small portion of the real deal,” agrees Blakely.
Myth 4: “You Should Avoid ‘bad’ Holiday Foods Altogether.”
The only foods that are truly bad for you are those that have gone rancid or that you’re allergic to, says Schnell. So, instead of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” Byrne recommends allowing yourself to eat exactly what you want in the amount that feels comfortable.
While, yes, there’s a reason that nutrition experts recommend eating foods heavy in carbs, sugar, or fat in moderation, but you don’t need to try to completely eliminate them from your diet, Koszyk says. Doing so can just cause emotional stress and contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food.
She recommends building a plate that balances a variety of foods, including vegetables, protein, and any foods you may be tempted to label or avoid. This way, you can get a taste of everything and rest assured that you’re enjoying all foods and nourishing your body.
Myth 5: “You Should Do Extra workouts If You’ve Been overeating.”
This one is an issue for a couple of reasons—and the fact that it takes a lot less effort to consume calories than it does to “burn” them is the least important of them.
When you approach exercise with the mindset of wanting to “undo” indulging or “cancel out” your calories, you set yourself up for a contentious, unhealthy relationship with both exercise and eating.
Read More: What Is Mindful Exercise?
According to Schnell, with this mindset, you feel you “have” to work out instead of wanting to work out. It also shifts your focus away from the benefits that movement can offer throughout the holiday season, such as relieving stress, boosting your energy, and supporting your digestion, she explains.
Bottom line: You don’t need to earn or undo anything you eat.
All sorts of unhelpful myths about food and health can make navigating the many celebrations and indulgences of the holiday season confusing and stressful. Ultimately, your best bet is to maintain the healthy habits and eating patterns you rely on throughout the rest of the year as much as possible—and not to sweat about the ingredients in your favorite pie, how much you ate at last night’s festivities, or taking extreme measures to “bounce back” come January.
That said, if you’re feeling unsure about how to navigate eating in the holiday season on your own, Blakely recommends you reach out to a registered dietitian or certified nutritionist for guidance. Not only can they help you get clear on your relationship with food and your personal goals and needs, but they can also help you create an action plan that’ll allow you to move through this time of year with less stress and more balance. You can even book a free one-on-one virtual consultation with one of The Vitamin Shoppe’s nutritionists.