The holidays may be a time of love and cheer, but there can be a dark side to all that togetherness: diet sabotage.
Whether you have allergies or intolerances, have decided to go vegetarian or simply want to lose weight, the holidays – especially the food that seems to be everywhere – can create scenarios that make diet restrictions even harder.
“So many people associate different foods and cultural traditions surrounding food with holidays, and also with feelings, and with love and with memories,” said Malina Malkani, registered dietician nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “And some of the ways food is so wonderful and is such a wonderful part of our tradition and culture, can also be difficult to navigate around the holidays.”
Malkani says one particular type of problem is “food pushers,” who cook or host meals and are invested in those they love eating the special food they have prepared for the holiday season.
Plan your strategies
Karen Sanderson, a 61-year-old grandmother and full-time student in North Dakota, knows how difficult holiday parties and gatherings can be when trying to lose or maintain weight.
“It’s hard enough to maintain good habits on your own, but when you have people putting things in front of you and trying to insist that you try them, or saying things like ‘I worked so hard on this casserole’ or whatever, like you’re slighting them personally, and I just find it a little annoying, to say the least,” she said.
When she was pregnant about 40 years ago, she gained weight that she didn’t lose. Over the past five years, after deciding that she wanted to feel and look better, she changed her eating and exercise habits and finally lost that leftover weight, and then maintained her new physique. But it hasn’t come without challenges.
“Holidays are tough, man, really tough,” she said. Unlike work gatherings, family celebrations are not problematic for Sanderson, who allows herself to enjoy the occasional splurge meal for what it is.
“Holiday gatherings at work are the most troublesome,” she said. “People bring in all these fatty, calorie-heavy foods, lots of desserts, and when you’re looking at a buffet of 20 different things and there’s only one plate of fruit, what are you supposed to do?”
Malkani points out that “one meal is not going to make or break a nutritious lifestyle or a weight loss goal. What’s more important is the totality of the nutrition lifestyle.”
There are strategies to put in place when you find yourself facing a food pusher or diet saboteur.
One of Malkani’s favorites involves preparing yourself. “It sounds so simple, but it is sometimes difficult to do unless you’ve practiced – but to have your simple, ‘No, thank you’ statement prepared. It can be polite, it can be charming, it can be whatever makes you feel comfortable, but to be prepared to say, ‘No, thank you’ … is very important,” Malkani said.
Another tip is having a healthy and nutritious meal or snack before attending an event so you are less tempted to overeat. And if you do slip up, remember that it’s not the end of the world, as long as you go back to your normal habits.
Notes for hosts
It’s not just those focused on weight and lifestyle who can face problems when it comes to food pushers. However well-meaning the host, there are sometimes health risks related to eating something you don’t normally consume.
“We know they come from a position of love, and we love them for who they are, but it is important, especially for those who have food allergies or intolerances or sensitivities [or] an autoimmune disease, such as celiac disease, to be able to set firm boundaries around foods that will cause a reaction,” Malkani said.
Kendra Chapman knows that the holiday season can be a risky time. “I get invited to all of these holiday parties, and of course I want to go, and I always feel like I don’t get the full experience of having the food and drinking the drinks and doing all the things,” she said.
Chapman, 28, of Los Angeles, has more than 20 food allergies, including peanuts and citric acid. Some are deadly and can cause her to go into anaphylactic shock; others will cause stomach issues, hives and itching. After being diagnosed with most them just over three years ago, she started a blog, Nope, Can’t Eat That Either, chronicling her experience.
“I think that well-meaning hosts prepare these beautiful meals, and oftentimes, it includes things that some of the guests can’t eat,” said Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. “I’m not talking about things that make you sick. If you have a gluten intolerance, if you have a serious nut allergy, you just have to let the host know and don’t feel any remorse about not eating it.”
Although Chapman doesn’t think people sabotage her diet in a malicious way, there are times when she must remind them about her dietary requirements.
“One thing that happens a lot is, people forget,” she said. This often happens with co-workers and new acquaintances. “It’s harmless. They aren’t trying to force me to eat things. It’s literally just that they forget.”
After she spends some time with people, though, they often become as protective of what she eats as she is.
“My family [is] very accommodating to me, but going to friends’ houses, like holiday parties for instance, it’s a nightmare,” she said. “I usually just go and don’t eat, because people don’t really understand the gravity of allergies, which is unfortunate because you’re in a room full of 50 people, and you’re the only one not eating.”
For Gottsman, everyone at an event – be it a Thanksgiving meal or a Christmas party – must be conscious of how people with allergies or dietary requirements feel.
“A gracious guest is not going to make another guest feel uncomfortable. And a gracious host and a good host will never want their guest to feel uncomfortable by making them feel uncomfortable for not eating,” she said.
Hosts should try to have options available for guests who may have food allergies or intolerances, Gottsman said.
“They should offer some alternatives, such as a fruit tray or even a cheese tray, if you are nut-allergic. They should prepare in advance for restrictions. But also, they should ask the guests if there is anything they should be aware of,” she said.
However, these alternatives come with their own risks. Chapman also has to be aware of issues such as cross-contamination when she attends events.
“You’ll have a spread of food, and one thing might be completely safe, but they’ll have something at the other end of the table that’s not, and people will use the same spoon or the same fork, and now I really can’t eat it,” she said.
Although Chapman often doesn’t eat at parties, one way to increase the potential food options is to contribute, according to Gottsman.
“You can let [the host] know in advance, ‘Listen, I’m going to come, but … I have some severe allergies, and I would love to bring a casserole that I can share with everyone,’ ” she said.
Bringing your own dish also can be helpful if you’re a vegan or vegetarian.
Bringing enough to share means that you have something to eat, and it keeps you from standing out.
As with other dietary requirements, there are times when the families and friends of those who are vegan or vegetarian don’t sabotage on purpose.
“I am not sure If they meant to, but during Thanksgiving, there was gravy sitting out, and I asked, ‘Is this vegetarian?’ They replied ‘yes,’ probably thinking ‘there is not meat in this.’ Turns out there was chicken broth in it, and I ate it,” Emma Huehns, a vegetarian in Wisconsin, wrote in an e-mail.
Huehns, 17, started her vegetarian diet about a year ago and is the only non-meat-eater in her family.
Though they are generally supportive – her dad even went vegetarian for a week with her – she still has some struggles.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
“I have also been told many times by my grandparents that chicken and fish isn’t meat. [My grandmother] even tried to tell me that I could have something she made when it had meat in it, because she said it wouldn’t hurt if I had just a little,” she said.
Although you may face some resistance from family or have to avoid certain foods being served at parties, for Torine, the main point of the holidays is to enjoy yourself and have fun with friends and family. For him, this means not explaining your diet choices or making them the central focus.
“You don’t want to spoil anyone’s party. You don’t want to pontificate. You just say ‘Thanks, I’ll have it later, I’ll just pass,’ ” he said.
And his advice for vegetarians on Thanksgiving? “Be thankful for the salad,” he said with a laugh.