Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series taking a closer look at eating disorders, disordered eating, and the relationships to food and body image.
There can be something anxiety-inducing about big meals.
Whether you’re gathering for a festive lunch or breaking out of your usual routine to meet at a restaurant, those indulgent occasions can be tainted with feelings of shame or out of control. But festive times don’t have to be like this, said Natalie Mokari, a dietitian based in Charlotte, NC.
Many of the ways people approach food are shaped by diet culture or societal beliefs that encourage food restriction to achieve a slimmer body. But research — and the personal experience of many people — has shown that restrictive dieting rarely results in long-term weight loss.
Restrictive diets “may actually do more harm than good,” dietitian and TikTok creator Steph Grasso told CNN in April 2022. “You may lose a lot of weight, but eventually that weight will come back, and then you might as well gain more.” why did you limit yourself so much.
Mokari recommended that people rethink how they approach mealtimes as they embark on this new year. When it comes to treating yourself, depending on your current state of health, you don’t necessarily need to label sugary or salty foods off-limits, experts say.
In fact, the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend focusing 85 percent of your food on nourishing the body and leaving the rest for foods you find enjoyable and indulgent. Everyone is different, of course, and it’s important to consult a doctor before indulging if you have dietary restrictions related to specific health conditions, Mokari said.
Eating a meal may seem so simple that it needs no instruction, but Mokari suggested using the following three strategies to do it better, both for holiday get-togethers and if you’re looking to rethink your approach to food in the new year.
The first step is ordering and serving yourself things that look good, not just what’s in line with a restrictive diet. Choosing something you know you don’t want can often lead to overdoing it after a meal is over, Mokari said.
“Diet culture tells us that grilled chicken salad is what we should order in a restaurant to be the healthiest, but that doesn’t have to be the answer,” she added.
While scanning a menu or holiday dish, Mokari said she likes to make decisions based on how satisfied she will be after the meal.
That means listening to cravings sometimes instead of resisting, think about what you haven’t eaten in a while that would be fun to eat and what will make you feel good based on what your body needs.
Maybe that salad would be perfect for a light meal on a summer day, but a toasted burger would feel better when it’s cold outside and you need carbs to fill you up, she said.
If you’re looking to round out your nutrients, you can always supplement with a side of vegetables, she added.
For many health goals, adding nutrients to meals rather than taking away things you enjoy is more effective and sustainable, Grasso said.
But knowing what you need and honoring your cravings can help you maintain a balanced diet.
“Eventually, order something that satisfies you and makes you feel good when you leave the restaurant, so you haven’t spent $20 on lunch and left hungry still craving snacks,” Mokari said. “The more satisfied you are with what you eat, the less you feel the need to mindlessly snack.”
The human body is well equipped to tell you when you need to eat, what to eat and when to stop, but diet culture has messed with those cues, Mokari said.
Limiting what and how much you eat — like telling yourself you can’t eat that burger or ice cream instead of indulging in a treat — is a behavior that can lead to eating more than you’re comfortable with later on to remedy, she has added.
Mokari said tuning in to those internal cues of hunger and fullness is an important step in eating a satisfying, nutritious meal.
That means not starving yourself during the day to “save up” for an exciting meal later.
“Ideally, you don’t show up at a restaurant overly hungry,” Mokari said. “It just leads to making decisions that rely more on portion size just to re-regulate that hunger and get away from that sense of hunger.”
Try putting your fork down between bites, she also suggested. Slowing down gives your body time to send the signals to your brain that let you know you’re satisfied without feeling awkward full.
Finally, it takes away the dread and shame so you can just enjoy the experience, she said.
That means savoring the meal, using all of your senses to appreciate what you’re eating, Mokari said.
Eating doesn’t have to be all or nothing, she said. You can have ice cream on Wednesdays and a salad for lunch on Saturdays.
“The more you balance it throughout the week, the more of a balanced person you’ll be,” Mokari said.
Most people have favorite foods — sweet or savory or fried — or alcoholic beverages they don’t want to get rid of, so factor them into your diet in a measured way, even if they feel indulgent, she added.
And when you build them, don’t be ashamed.
Feeling guilty about your food choices causes you to make more wrong choices, and therefore becomes a cyclical pattern, said Brooke Alpert, a registered dietitian and author of “The Diet Detox: Why Your Diet Is Making You Fat and What to Do About It” in a 2022 interview.
“There’s a time and a place for fries, pizza and a piece of cake.”
And finally, have fun. Food and catering are important to many cultural and social events, and you don’t want to miss out because you’re concerned about adhering to specific restrictions, she said.
“Sharing a meal with people is in my opinion one of life’s many joys,” added Mokari. “Enjoy the company you are with.”