Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series that takes a closer look at eating disorders, disordered eating and relationships with food and body image.
There can be something anxiety inducing about big meals.
Whether you’re gathering for a holiday meal or interrupting your usual routine to meet up at a restaurant, those indulgent occasions can be sullied by feelings of shame or being out of control. But festive moments don’t have to be like that, said Natalie Mokari, a dietitian based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Many of the ways people approach eating are shaped by diet culture or societal beliefs that encourage restriction of food to get a leaner body. But research — and many people’s personal experience — has shown that restrictive dieting rarely results in long-term weight loss.
Restrictive diets “can actually do more harm than good,” dietitian and TikTok creator Steph Grasso told CNN in April 2022. “You might lose a lot of weight, but eventually that weight is going to come back, and then you might even gain more because you restricted yourself so much.”
Mokari recommended that people rethink how they approach meals as they embark on this new year. When it comes to treating yourself, depending on your current health status, you don’t necessarily need to label sugary or salty foods off-limits, experts say.
In fact, the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends focusing 85% of your food on nourishing your body and leaving the rest for foods you find fun 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 basic you don’t need instructions, but Mokari suggested using the following three strategies to do it better — both for your holidays gatherings and if you are trying to rethink your approach to food in the new year.
Step one is to order and serve yourself things that look good, not just what is in line with a restrictive diet. Choosing something you know you don’t want often can lead to overindulging after a meal is over, Mokari said.
“Diet culture tells us that the salad with grilled chicken is what we should order at a restaurant to be the healthiest, but that doesn’t have to be the answer,” she added.
When scanning a menu or a holiday spread, 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, thinking about what you haven’t had 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 toasty burger would feel better when it’s cold out and you need some carbohydrates to fill you up, she said.
If you are 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 the things you enjoy is more effective and sustainable, Grasso said.
But knowing what you need and honoring your cravings can help keep a balanced diet.
“Ultimately order something that is going to satisfy you and make you feel good when you walk out of the restaurant, so you didn’t spend like $20 on lunch and left feeling hungry still looking for 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 you need to eat and when to stop, but diet culture has messed with those cues, Mokari said.
Restricting what and how much you eat — like telling yourself you can’t have that burger or ice cream instead of allowing yourself to enjoy a treat — is behavior that can lead to eating more than you are comfortable with later to make up for it, she added.
Mokari said tuning back into those internal cues of hunger and fullness is an important step in eating a satisfying and nourishing meal.
That means not starving yourself throughout the day to “save up” for an exciting meal later.
“Ideally, you aren’t showing up to a restaurant overly hungry,” Mokari said. “It just leads to making decisions that are based more on portion size just to reregulate that hunger and get away from that sense of feeling ravenous.”
Try putting down your fork in between bites, she also suggested. Slowing down gives your body time to send the signals to your brain that let you know you are satisfied without feeling uncomfortably full.
Finally, kick out 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 are eating, Mokari said.
Eating doesn’t have to be all or nothing, she said. You can have ice cream on a Wednesday and a salad for lunch on a Saturday.
“The more that you balance it out throughout the week, the more of a balanced person you’re going to be,” Mokari said.
Most people have favorite foods — sweets or salty or fried — or alcoholic beverages that they don’t want to get rid of, so build those into your diet in a measured way, even if they feel indulgent, she added.
And when you do build them in, don’t shame yourself.
Feeling guilty about your food choices causes you to make more poor choices, and so it 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 is a time and a place for French fries and pizza and a piece of cake.”
And finally, have fun. Food and dining is important to many cultural and social events, and you don’t want to miss out because you are worried about meeting specific restrictions, she said.
“Sharing a meal with people is in my opinion one of the many joys in life,” Mokari added. “Enjoy the company you’re with.”