how can we prevent holiday eating from derailing our health and fitness goals
November 21, 2021

Nutritional biochemistry

A Game Plan for Healthy Enjoyment of the Holidays

Lessons from my annual showdown with pie.

Read Time 4 minutes

The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes the annual showdown with my archrival: pie.

Like most people, I allow myself a little overindulgence on Thanksgiving. A single meal, regardless of how large, does not generally have a long-term impact on body weight, fat mass, or important metabolic parameters. Though many notice an uptick in weight the morning after a heavy meal, such “overnight weight gain” is typically the result of water retention, as a larger-than-average meal usually corresponds to a larger-than-average quantity of sodium and carbohydrate. In other words, the apparent gain is short-lived and doesn’t reflect an increase in fat mass. Good news. Bring on the turkey, stuffing, and candied yams – and of course, the pie.

The bad news? It’s very easy to let a single oversized meal turn into a series of many oversized meals, and the excess calories quickly add up. In the days after a large meal, the tendency to continue overeating is in part due to a surplus in supply: leftovers from that delicious holiday feast crowd the refrigerator and constantly tempt us to have another taste (this time with no cooking required).

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Unfortunately, this problem is compounded in many individuals by a decreased sense of inhibition toward food following a single episode of overeating. In other words, one is more likely to overeat after consuming a large meal than after eating nothing at all. This phenomenon – known as “counter-regulatory eating” – is, paradoxically, strongest among those who adhere to strict diets under normal circumstances. Researchers explain this observation among restrained eaters as a “what-the-hell” effect: once a diet is broken, dieters may feel that further restriction is pointless, in which case, they might as well overindulge with abandon until some undefined future point when the diet will resume. Interestingly, the strength of the counter-regulatory eating response does not correspond directly to the calorie content of the initial food. Rather, it appears to depend on the degree to which the dieter perceives a food as “forbidden,” irrespective of calorie load, implying that different individuals are likely to have different food triggers for this response.

My ultimate trigger is pie. It sends my self-control straight out the window. Still, without a slice, my Thanksgiving would feel as incomplete as sports without rivalries. So, short of cutting out favorite foods entirely, how can we prevent holiday eating from derailing our health and fitness goals?

A little advanced planning can go a long way toward ensuring that indulgence doesn’t get out of hand or become a habit. I find, for example, that changing my environment in such a way that removes temptation is more effective than hoping I’ll have the willpower to resist temptation as it arises. Willpower is, in my estimation, a lousy strategy. For me, removing post-meal temptation means preemptive leftover control. Whenever I host Thanksgiving dinner, I ask each of my guests to bring tupperware. No one leaves the house without their share, and I’m not left with a stuffed refrigerator. Another strategy is simply to prepare less food. I enjoy cooking and love the idea of a picture-perfect Thanksgiving table with every seasonal dish imaginable, but if I’m trying to avoid a smorgasbord of leftovers, cutting out a few less popular side dishes is a small price to pay.

In previous years, I’ve also often relied on a pre-holiday fast to help me prepare for the onslaught of excess calories. This would typically involve maintaining my workout routine while drastically reducing my calorie intake in the 3-4 days leading up to Thanksgiving. By the time the Macy’s parade floats came sailing into Herald Square on Thursday morning, I had built up enough of a calorie deficit that I could safely chow down to my heart’s content. But this still doesn’t address the leftover problem, it only addresses the “damage” from the feast.

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all strategy. Some might find, for example, that aggressive fasting only worsens counter-regulatory eating after the fast is broken. The most effective and realistic game plan will vary for different individuals and different families, and even the best-laid plans can sometimes fail in the short-term. Which, incidentally, brings me back to pie…

A few years back, I hosted a holiday feast with all the classic Thanksgiving favorites, and, naturally, pies for dessert. As usual, I sent guests off with leftovers, but noticed at the end of the evening that we’d forgotten to divide the pies. A deviation from the game plan, but I could improvise: I tossed the leftover pie in the trash, and as I went to bed, I was feeling pretty good about overcoming the temptation of my foe. But after my morning workout the next day, the pie came roaring back with a vengeance. Before I knew it, I was digging through the trash, and sure enough, it was waiting there, still in its box, ready for me. And then… well, I’ll spare you the rest of the details. Suffice to say, my opponent scored a come-from-behind win the likes of which Tom Brady can only dream about when reminiscing about the Atlanta Falcons.

It wasn’t my proudest moment (my wife caught me in the act and described it as the most disgusting thing she’s ever seen me do), but it served as a stark reminder that, for me, a strategy of resisting temptation is much less effective than removing temptation altogether. And you can bet that when it comes time to divide leftovers with my guests this year, whatever remains of the pie will be the first to go. Because even the best-laid plans can fail in the short-term, but when it comes to the long game of improving health, every day – and holiday – is a brand-new ballgame.

– Peter

Overhead view of three mini pies - apple pie pumpkin pie and pecan pie / Thanksgiving Desserts

Disclaimer: This blog is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this blog or materials linked from this blog is at the user's own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.

17 Comments

  1. Hah! Nice. I’ve also been down that road. Now I know that throwing the foe away requires some additional adulteration so that even my disgusting future self can’t stomach pulling it back out.

    And thanks for some perspective on being sane about all this.

  2. This has to be one of the best emails from you. I laughed out loud reading it to my mother over our Sunday morning tea. Thanks, Dr. Attia. I wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  3. Love the passion on the writing behind arch rival pie, it’s hilarious!

    Pro tip: if pie makes a ninja move and somehow manages to stay in the house after all
    guests leave, don’t simply throw it away. Put it in a plastic bag, top it off with some soap
    or shampoo (or anything else that would make you gag in a split second if ingested) and
    mash it up. No chance of comeback after that.

  4. So, “counter regulatory eating.” That’s what they call it. CRE and me are close friends 🙁. The worst I ever feel about myself is when I know what to do but I just don’t do it. Thank you for the reminder to control the damn environment!

  5. Thanks for the reminder. With 4 days left until Thanksgiving I will being cutting back on my food intake while keeping my training going. I signed up for Race Walking in the National Senior Games next May in Fort Lauderdale so I am within the six month period where I get serious about preparing.

  6. Peter,

    Thank you for sharing this. Like others I laughed out loud about your wife “catching you”.

    You are a mentor to me and I appreciate you sharing such a personal story with us all. I suspect many of us see you as super-human and wish we could live up to the standards you project from your behavior and life stories. To learn that you are human and have frailties, well, it makes me go just a little easier on myself for being someone with imperfections.

    Happy Holidays, enjoy the pie!

    Kindest Regards,

    Tim

  7. So appreciative that you showed us your vulnerability. We all have our shameful moments. By sharing openly, we can learn from past mistakes – our own and others. We are just human after all – striving for better.

  8. How about freezing the pie next time?

    Don’t want to waste that food. Much too much hunger in the world.

    Thanks

  9. Ha! Thanks for being so truthful Dr. Attia! I am also a physician and 2nd your assessments on willpower. I will say that a great strategy in our house involves putting the leftovers we don’t want to eat (or should not eat) in the GARBAGE DISPOSAL (or compost with coffee grinds, etc. on top of it.)

    As always, thank you for your insight and your leadership on this journey towards health/wellness/happiness. I regularly encourage my patients to watch your videos and listen to your podcast to improve the quality of their health. Thanks for all that you do! — Tamar Lipof, MD

  10. This one had me laughing out loud. The picture of digging out a pie still in its carton is sadly hilarious.

    My wife has a strategy for dealing with leftover food she doesn’t want as a temptation – destroy it – like put it down the disposal or tear it up and throw it in the trash with a mix of horrible bits.

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