Have Your Cake – and Pumpkin Pie – and Eat it Too! Professor Offers Tips for Healthy Holiday Eating

By Tom McLaughlin

For many people, the joys of holiday traditions are coupled with the dreaded, annual battle of the bulge.

Markey says don’t try to cut out foods altogether, but keep them in balance or moderation

Like clockwork, the simmering questions arise: Should I watch my waistline, or indulge in the cornucopia of holiday treats and start my diet when the holidays are over? After all, that’s what New Year’s resolutions are for, right?

We check in with Charlotte Markey, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden and an expert on evidence-based solutions for sustainable health management. The author of the book Smart People Don’t Diet (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2014) explains how you can have your cake – and pumpkin pie – and eat it too.

So let’s put it on the plate: Should we indulge or lay off the treats?

 We should enjoy the holiday rituals and the foods that go with those rituals. Once people say that they can’t have that pumpkin pie, they will only want it more, and are still likely to eat it and to eat more of it. It’s a cliché, but it works: if you want to get through the long haul of the holidays, don’t try to cut out foods altogether, but keep them in balance or moderation.

What is your general approach to healthier eating all year round?

Rather than relying on gimmicks and quick fixes, it is important to adopt a healthy lifestyle as a long-term endeavor. It isn’t about losing five pounds this week for the wedding that you are going to on the weekend. Sure, you can try that, but research shows that you are just going to gain them back next week. This is about changing your life.

The Rutgers–Camden professor recommends substituting lower-calorie and lower-fat versions of the same beloved foods

Based on your research, you have found that dieting doesn’t work. Why is that the case?

Aside from being a miserable experience, dieting rarely leads to the desired goal of losing weight. On the contrary, studies show that dieters often gain weight because most diets’ intensity, restrictions, and short durations are ill-equipped to produce long-term results. You may lose 20 pounds in the first month, but a year later, you are right back to where you started or may have even gained a few pounds.

What are some simple strategies for altering bad eating habits?

Most people are habitual eaters, tending to crave the same foods time and again. Consequently, instead of “going cold turkey,” I recommend substituting lower-calorie and lower-fat versions of the same beloved foods, making it possible to establish better habits that can be easily maintained.

So it’s not about making drastic changes. Is that right?

Exactly. Instead of sitting down with a tub of ice cream with 500 calories, eat a healthier variety and a little less of it. Just by eliminating a couple hundred calories from that dessert can result in a 20-pound weight loss over the course of a year. If you are looking to lose 10 or 20 pounds, then you only need to switch out a few foods and give it enough time to make a difference.

In Smart People Don’t Diet, Markey also addresses the psychological and physical aspects of weight management, dedicating entire chapters to research on body image and exercise. As Markey explains, there is a cyclical nature to the way that mental and physical health feed off of one another. She affirms that a major aspect of having a positive body image is learning to be “a little bit more accepting and gentle with ourselves.”

“None of us is perfect,” says the Rutgers–Camden researcher. “You have to move away from the mindset that says you have to lose 40 pounds in order to be acceptable to yourself. Feel accomplished if you lose a couple pounds; that’s a great place to start.”

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