How to Not Overeat During a Holiday Feast

If you outsmart your appetite you can enjoy your favorite holiday foods without feeling deprived.

If you outsmart your appetite you can enjoy your favorite holiday foods without feeling deprived.

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s most people gain about 1-2 pounds of fat.(1,2)

This isn’t a big problem if you lose it right away, but most people never lose that extra chub.(3,4) These small binges accumulate without you noticing until it’s too late.(5)

It might seem inevitable that you’ll put on some fat during the holidays, but it doesn’t have to be. This post will show you 12 tricks that will let you enjoy your favorite holiday feasts without feeling deprived.

1. Be More Mindful

You eat more when you’re distracted. You also eat faster.(6-9) This effect is even more powerful when you’re eating with friends and family, like on Thanksgiving dinner.(10)

This is largely because you’re enjoying the company and conversation, which is one of the reasons holidays are fun. If you become too distracted however, it can make you eat a lot more than you would otherwise.

On the other hand, becoming more aware of your eating habits during a meal can help reduce how much you eat at that meal and later in the day.(11-13) You don’t have to eliminate the social element from the holidays to not overeat. Being aware that eating with others can impact your portion control is often enough to help you eat less.

  • Don’t eat and talk at the same time. Instead of forcing down a bite of food so you can rejoin the conversation, take time to enjoy it. Then start talking again.
  • Eat slower. People tend to eat faster than is necessary and probably healthy, especially when they’re around friends.(14) Chewing each bite more thoroughly can help you eat less.(15)
  • Eat one food at a time. This gives you speed bumps to help you eat slower and reevaluate your hunger levels before eating more.

2. Limit Your Choices

You overeat when you’re presented with more food choices.(16-21) The more food choices — the more you eat. Even making people think there is more food variety, when there really isn’t, can make them eat 43% more.(22)

Here are two strategies to help limit your food variety without feeling deprived:

  1. Choose a limited number of food options — the ones you really want. You may still overeat, but not as much as if you sample everything.
  2. Make your plate in the kitchen instead of at the table. This way you only have to resist the temptation of variety for a few minutes, rather than for the whole meal. It also makes it appear like there are fewer total food choices and less total food available, which can help you eat less.(23,24)

3. Choose Simpler Foods

You eat more when you’re presented with complex flavors, enticing aromas, strong colors, and lots of sugar, fat, and salt — stuff that tastes good. Your brain literally shuts off the mechanisms that help you control your appetite when you eat these highly rewarding foods.(25) Even if you don’t like the food all that much, if it looks and smells tasty you tend to eat far more than you need to be full.(26-28)

Simple foods are harder to overeat. They can be just as tasty, but they usually don’t encourage overconsumption as much. They also present less variety. The more fat, sugar, salt, appealing colors, and total ingredients in a dish, the more rewarding it tends to be.

Here are a few examples of simpler holiday foods:

  • Turkey.
  • Steak.
  • Mashed potatoes.
  • Baked sweet potatoes.
  • Green beans.
  • Peas.

There’s nothing wrong with having some of the more hedonistic choices, but it will be harder to overeat if you fill up on simpler, less rewarding foods first.

4. Make Overeating Inconvenient

When food is easy to eat, you eat more. When food is further away, in covered non-transparent containers, or in thicker wrapping, you eat less. The more effort involved in eating, the less likely you are to overeat.(29)

When you’re going to be in a situation with lots of tasty food, make it harder to eat more:

  • Instead of setting platters of food on the table, leave them in the kitchen so you have to get up to eat more.
  • Cover dishes so you have to remove the lid before serving.
  • Use less user-friendly silverware like a fork instead of a spoon for mashed potatoes.
  • Make a dish that needs to be kept cold so it has to be pulled out of the fridge or freezer before it’s eaten.
  • Wrap deserts individually in foil so you have to unwrap them before eating.

The harder a food is to eat, the harder it is to overeat.

5. Wear Food Blinders

Seeing food makes you want to eat more.(30-32) Even if a food is right next to you, having it covered can help you eat less without noticing.(33) This is especially true for people with a history of dieting failure.(34)

You can unconsciously eat less by keeping tempting foods out of sight, and lower calorie options in sight:

  • Keep dishes covered until you want more food.
  • Leave low calorie options on the table where you can see them, and leave the higher calorie ones in the kitchen.
  • Keep deserts in another room until the main meal is finished.

6. Eat More Protein

Protein is far more satiating than carbs and fat, and eating more protein will help you eat less between meals and over the long-term.(35-39)

Carbs and fat help reduce appetite about the same, with some studies showing carbs are better in the short-term and fat better in the long-term.(40-44) There are big differences in how people respond to carbs or fat in terms of appetite, so don’t stress about it too much.(45)

Since you’ll almost certainly be eating lots of both, eating adequate protein is going to make the most difference.

Here are four tips to get the most appetite suppressing effect from protein:

  • Eat a higher proportion of protein the day before the feast, the day of the feast, and the day after to help cut calories as much as possible.
  • Sneak extra protein into dishes (e.g. add extra milk to mashed potatoes).
  • Choose higher protein foods in preference to lower protein options.
  • Eat the higher protein foods before carbs, fat, and alcohol.

7. Eat More Fiber

Foods high in fiber are often the most filling, and in some cases even more so than protein, depending on the food.(46-49) Foods high in fiber tend to be low in calories which makes them a good food choice for snacks around the holiday feast. Fiber rich foods add volume to the main meal, which makes it appear like there’s more food and helps you eat less.(50-53) Serving vegetables also makes the meal more appealing and increases people’s perceptions of the cook.(54)

8. Use Food Cues

People often rely more on external cues to help them stop eating than feelings of fullness.

Food disappearing on a plate can serve as a cue as to how much you’ve eaten. If this cue is removed, you can eat 76% more without being aware.(55) Noticing that others are finished is also a trigger to stop eating.(56)

Several studies have shown that leaving “reminders” like dirty dishes, scraps, and wrappers on the table can help you get a better sense of how much you’ve eaten, and help you refrain from overeating.(57,58)

Here are several ways to use subconscious cues to help you eat less:

  • Finish all of the food on your plate before serving more.
  • Drink everything in your glass before pouring more.
  • Use a new plate for each course and a new glass for each caloric drink, and leave the dirty ones at your spot on the table.
  • Leave wrappers, bottles, bones, and scraps on your plate or on your spot at the table.
  • Leave empty serving dishes on the table.
  • Ask others to do the same. If they look confused, make an excuse like “our dishwasher is full,” “we want to keep the sink open,” or “it helps keep the mess in one place.”

9. Serve Smaller Portions (But Maintain Volume)

When there’s less food on your plate, you eat less. When there’s more food in front of you, you eat more, but you often don’t feel any more satisfied.(59-63) Once you serve a large plate of food, your brain has already secretly decided it’s going to finish it. It’s committed to overeating.

Reducing portion size works well by itself, but it works even better if you maintain the overall volume of food on your plate.(64) If you serve smaller portions of high calorie foods, but maintain the same volume on your plate by adding vegetables, fruits, and other low calorie items, you can eat 30% less and be just as full.(65-68) If you eat smaller portions of low and high calorie foods, you can eat 56% less without noticing.(69) If you eat the low calorie high volume foods first you’ll eat even less.(70)

Serving smaller portions also makes use of several of the previously mentioned strategies:

  • Mindfulness. Smaller portions create a sense of scarcity, which can make you slow down and appreciate your food more. It also gives other people time to finish, which can serve as a cue that it’s time to stop eating.(71)
  • Limited choices. It forces you to serve less food, which can help you limit your choices.
  • Inconvenience. If you want to get a second helping, you have to go to the kitchen  and prepare a second plate, which is more effort.
  • Food blinders. It keeps a smaller amount of food in your field of vision throughout the meal, which may help you think about food less.
  • Food cues.. If you use a new plate for another helping, the extra dirty dishes at your spot on the table serve as additional reminders as to how much you’ve eaten.

It’s possible you may not be full after a smaller portion, but you may be surprised with how little food satisfies you.

Serve smaller portions of the highest calorie foods, but fill your plate with low calorie options to maintain the overall volume of food. It’s also probably a good idea to fill your plate with the lower calorie options first, and eat them first. Once you start piling on potatoes and cake, it’s hard to make room for broccoli.

Smaller portions = eating less (without being hungry).

Smaller portions + high volume, low calorie foods = eating less (and being even less hungry).

10. Use Smaller Dishes & Utensils

When you use larger utensils, eat off of larger dishes, and out of larger packages, you eat more.(72-74) This is even true for foods you don’t like. You eat less when everything is smaller. Most people also think they’re immune to this effect when they aren’t.(75)

Use smaller serving dishes, bowls, plates, utensils, glasses, and everything else. It helps create the illusion that you’re eating more than you are, which helps you serve smaller portions and eat less.

11. Compress Your Calories

Overeating is a relative term. If you’re still in a caloric deficit at the end of the day, you (technically) haven’t overeaten.

People will often eat around 2,500 to 3,000 calories or more during the main holiday feast. For some that is still far more than they need, but for others that’s around a day’s worth of calories. If you don’t eat anything else that day, you may be able to wake up the next morning without gaining any fat. Eating one meal a day for several weeks can make you hungrier, but usually not for one day.(76)

Here are several ways to budget your calories so you can eat a ton during the big feast and minimize fat gain:

  • Eat only one meal on the day of the feast, and no snacks.
  • Skip meals.
  • Eat less at other meals.
  • Only eat protein and fibrous veggies for snacks.
  • Restrict calories the day before and after the feast.
  • Have a small, filling, low calorie meal before the feast so you’re not ravenous beforehand.

12. Set Reasonable Expectations

People who set extremely rigid food rules often fail their diets.(77) When people succumb to their cravings, they feel like they’ve “blown it” and give up.(78,79) They are also far more likely to overeat when they give in to their cravings.(80,81) Holiday feasts are probably the time this is most likely to occur, given the plethora of tasty foods, and the fact that they only come once a year.

If you decide you’re only going to eat 1,000 calories, and you eat more than that, keep your perspective. You have not failed. You’ll be far more successful losing weight if you overeat 3,000 calories on one day and maintain a caloric deficit in the long-term.

Enjoy the moment. Think of a holiday feast as a diet “break” rather than a cheat day. It’s far better to eat way more than you need on one day and stick to your weight loss/maintenance efforts in the long-run, than to fail because you deprived yourself of your favorite foods.(82)

Being Satisfied with Less

Emerging from a holiday feast without gorging may seem like an impossible challenge, but it’s not. Using these tricks, you can sit down to a large holiday meal and eat less while still enjoying your favorite foods. Pick one or two of these strategies to make sure you don’t overeat during a holiday feast.



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Armi Legge

Armi Legge is a writer and fitness consultant who competed on the Youth and Junior USA Triathlon circuits for nearly a decade. He also trains as a powerlifter.

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