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Nutrition versus tradition: is it okay to indulge on special occasions?

Whether it’s delectable chocolate cake, enticing cheese platters or a six-course lunch, it’s hard to escape the fact that celebrations are closely entwined with food. We’re bombarded with advice about the healthiest foods to eat and many people end up feeling guilty if they overindulge.

So what is the best way to approach special occasions? Should you choose the healthiest option available or should all dietary rules go out the window?

Dr Elena George, an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at Deakin, believes there is a lot to be gained from occasionally eating exactly what you want. ‘I’m a believer of everything in moderation so I think that indulging and enjoying foods on special occasions is perfectly okay. Festive seasons and celebrations are a really important part of our social lives and our culture. They are times when we gather with our friends and our family and there is tradition around preparing and sharing food and spending time together.’

Research also supports the idea that this type of celebration is good for our health and wellbeing. ‘Some of the most researched healthy dietary patterns like the Mediterranean diet recommend eating with others,’ Dr George explains. ‘When we eat together, especially on special occasions, we are more likely to set the dining table with place settings and the experience is often less rushed and more enjoyable. These times become important memories.’

Pass the butter, skip the guilt

With a shift of mindset, indulging doesn’t have to be a big issue. ‘It’s just food, at the end of the day,’ Dr George says. ‘Eating more than usual occasionally is not going to affect your long term health so I think it is about changing your perception and having a good balance between your “everyday food” and your “sometimes food.”’

If you’re beating yourself up over eating something unhealthy, it’s worth exploring this a little further. Guilt can lead you to make less healthy choices. Dr George explains: ‘I think it all stems from the relationship that you have with food. Eat the less healthy foods when you really feel like them and actually enjoy them instead of feeling guilty. This means you are less likely to give up on healthy eating altogether.’

Dr George says prohibiting foods only makes you want them more. ‘Just have what you want. Have a small amount of it but enjoy it. As soon as you say that you can’t have something “ever” then you want it more.’

If you’re finding the issue particularly complex it may help to meet with an expert for some tailored advice. ‘If you feel like you need some ongoing support seeing a dietitian and getting some education and personalised sustainable behavioural change strategies could be a good way to go.’

'Just have what you want. Have a small amount of it but enjoy it. As soon as you say that you can’t have something “ever” then you want it more.'

Dr Elena George,
School of Exercise & Nutrition Science, Deakin University

Striking balance on special occasions

According to Dr George, the key thing is to keep the indulging occasional. ‘I like to think of it as an 80/20 rule. If you eat whole, healthy foods 80% of the time and the less healthy foods 20% of the time then you are striking a really good balance. I think healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle is about balance.’

Bringing mindfulness to the table is another way to bring a positive shift to your celebratory eating. ‘Choose foods that you really love,’ Dr George says. ‘Take in the experience, smell the food, eat slowly, chew well, enjoy every mouthful and enjoy the experience that you are sharing with your loved ones.’

Dr George says bringing balance to each meal can also help. ‘Pick a variety of foods. Add different coloured vegetables and salads to your plate. Have a break before you go for seconds: if you still feel like it in 15 or 20 minutes then have a second helping but give yourself some time to digest your food. If you are drinking alcohol try alternating with one non-alcoholic drink or with water.’

Getting back on track

So what should you do if you feel like you’ve overindulged? If you have a bad day or a bad meal, Dr George recommends that you just accept it and move on. ‘Sometimes when someone feels like they have made an unhealthy choice they then continue to eat whatever they want because they think they have already fallen off the wagon whereas, really, it’s only been one meal. Just get back to making healthy food choices.’

Being conscious of the foods that make you feel great can help you to enjoy the special occasions while keeping the mainstays of your diet healthy. ‘My philosophy is really about balance and if you are indulging for that day then it’s a little different to indulging for the whole month of December. Let yourself enjoy those experiences but remember what your everyday foods and your sometimes foods are.’

Are you interested in learning more about healthy eating? Find out about some surprising aspects of careers in nutrition.

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Dr Elena George
Dr Elena George

Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) and School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University

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