Thanksgiving Isn’t a Free Day

Thanksgiving. It's not a FREE DAY

Over the years many clients ask about “Cheat days”. Especially this time of year. When I hear that phrase I always cringed. I absolutely hate it, and the idea associated with it. Don’t get me wrong I use to practice them regularly. It was like a Christmas gift, but instead of 1x per year it was 1x per week. Which didn’t really help me stay focused on doing well with my eating consistently.

I learned through my own mistakes.

So for years now I’ve told clients to instead practice the idea of “free day”. Recently though even that phrase is bothering me. In 2020 too many days have been able to evolve into “free days” or “relaxed days”. And with Thanksgiving here, and talking to clients about the potential pit-falls it dawned on me.

See I always had the best of intentions — there are many trainers, nutritionist, health gurus and articles talking about how people should restrict and diet on Thanksgiving – and I always thought that idea was laughable. I mean “You eat so clean the rest of the year, one day doesn’t matter!” right?

I was only half right.

It’s true that one day never has THE determining impact on your weight-loss results.  One day eating a ton, or one day eating “perfect” will not change the final numbers. Single days and single meals make no difference.  It’s the average of weeks, months, and years that have the lasting impact.

The mistake I was making, actually was the concept of free days in general.  I didn’t realize I was setting up a much bigger problem for myself, and for them, and that it would have an increasing effect on all of their eating through the holidays.

Black and White Diet Rules are the #1 Predictor of Weight Loss Failure

So the study really read “Black and white diet rules are the #1 psychological predictor of weight loss failure,” but once you start talking psyche to people they can shut down quickly .[1]

The basic understanding of losing weight is very simple — eat less and move more.  Unfortunately,  understanding the physiology of weight loss makes no difference in our results.  That’s the primary reason that diets don’t work — having a set of rules makes no difference.

What’s the point of rules if the people can’t follow them?

When diets become rigid and strict the more apt they are to failure. That’s where psychology comes in.

What Food is For

There are 3 reasons people eat food:


Eating for Hunger

When a person is eating because they are simply hungry, they’ll also stop when they are full. They don’t snack irregularly, and they rarely gain weight unless they are trying too. Unfortunately most people have lost the recognition of cues to even notice their hunger and fullness because of years of dieting.

That being said, when people are able to eat based on their hunger and fullness cues, losing weight becomes doable, maintaining it is simpler, they like their body more, and most importantly they feel an unbelievable amount of peace around eating.

Eating for Pleasure

This is eating that accompanies another activity. It’s a secondary note. Like a first date, special date, or holiday like Thanksgiving. We are commemorating an event or special day with food. Whether hungry or not.

That is ok. It’s normal to eat for pleasure…sometimes.  To deny ourselves any kind of pleasure is inhuman.

The flip-side, though, is when food becomes your primary, or worse, only source of pleasure or reward in our lives. It can  quickly get out of control.

Eating to Numb Feelings

This is the pool where most people are. Stuck and unable to break free. Hey, guess what? It’s actually ok to eat your feelings once in a while. 

The danger is it can easily  the only way to cope with emotional pain, unwanted thoughts, stress, or boredom.  When it’s the only tool in the toolbox for that, we’re screwed.

Thanksgiving and Food

The thing about Thanksgiving, is that we want some amount of eating to satisfy hunger, and some amount of eating for pleasure.

You probably want to use some intuitive eating skills:

  1. Put your fork down between bites (Eating Slowly)
  2. Notice how your food tastes and enjoy it (Being mindful of the process)
  3. Notice yourself getting full, and stop (Eating to 80% practice)

These are all really cool skills because they do a couple things: First, they help you enjoy your food more.  Food enjoyment is about actually noticing how the food looks, smells, and tastes.  It’s being mindful of your senses, and aware of your bodies response. At least some of the time while you are eating.  Second, you are more apt to stop before you feel grossly stuffed.

You also probably want to eat some food for pleasure:

  1. Mom’s stuffing
  2. Grandma’s Pies
  3. Plenty of Wine

That’s all cool, and totally appropriate.  If you are the person who does zero eating for pleasure on Thanksgiving you are a little weird, no offense.  But truly if you think about your personal values, the kind of person you want to be in your life, and what matters to you, I’m sure that still includes eating some pie for dessert occasionally .

Why That Isn’t A Free Day

Remember that Black and White rules are the #1 predictor for weight-loss failure? A”Free Day” (White rule) is predicated on the idea of a “Perfect Day” (Black rule). So if you have diet rules that you must rigidly adhere to, what happens when you set aside one day per week for food enjoyment and a free-for-all?

Stuff gets out of hand. That’s what!

See, with diet rules, you don’t spend any time focusing on and noticing your hunger and fullness signals.  At the same time, you eliminate pleasure eating, so when you can eat for pleasure it’s not just “that was bad”. It’s whoa, what the hell did I just do?

Again, the whole “clean vs dirty eating” thing, or “bad vs. good foods” causes weight loss failure.  People walk the line, and white knuckle the rules until they inevitably snap. Then they eat away, eating more than they enjoy, because tomorrow “it’s back to the rules”.  It’s a recipe for disaster, starting a cycle of restricted eating and binging.

On the flip-side, if you guide your decisions from the kind of person you want to be, you find that there aren’t hard and fast rules.  Things are often context dependent.  Sometimes you have dessert, and really enjoy it.  Other times you skip dessert, and it’s fine.

Why Skill Practice is the Answer This Thanksgiving

Skill practice isn’t a rigid set of rules.  Skills are just tools you can employ, or not employ, at any time you want.  For example, if you have the skill to play guitar, you can pick up a guitar and play it when you want to.  But you aren’t a bad person the rest of the time when you aren’t playing guitar.  It’s just a skill.

Similarly, food skills like putting your fork down between bites, noticing when full, distinguishing between hunger and stress, and so on, are skills you can use or not use.

Often, my clients may be working on 3-5 skills in a given week.  For Thanksgiving Day, they may just back it to one skill.

For example, one of my clients is practicing these skills:

  1. Putting the fork down between bites
  2. Waiting 10-15 minutes before having seconds
  3. Noticing and Naming flavors of each dish
  4. Eliminating the “fear of missing out” –  and packing rest of food into mini-meals for leftovers the rest of the weekend

But for Thanksgiving, she is only working on one:

  1. Waiting 10-15 minutes before having seconds

She isn’t “off her diet” or “taking a free day.”  She’s actually still practicing her skill(s) — but she’s only practicing one skill, she’s chosen, and that enhances the pleasure of her food.  It also happens to have the effect of having her notice, and trust herself, when she actually feels full.  That way, she has more energy and focus to enjoy the event and people, instead of the meal.

Maximum enjoyment of food + Maximum enjoyment of the people she cares about

That’s the kind of skill practice that fits all of her personal values.  Connecting with family.  Feeling good in her body.  And enjoying the wonderful food on a special day.  All three at the same time.

Maybe Your Thanksgiving Can Be Just That Simple

It really could come down to just putting your fork down between bites.

Take some time and really enjoy every bite.  Pick out the flavors.  Notice the smells.  Look at how beautiful the food looks on the plate.

Pause and connect with people you love.  Listen to your spouse.  Ask your kids questions.  Share about yourself.  Laugh with each other.

As a trainer I used to think of food and holidays as being in opposition to my clients fitness goals, but that’s not accurate.  As a nutrition coach I realize that Food and holidays are in opposition to diet rules.  If you make your food decisions using your personal values as a guide and how they relate to food skills, it can all work together.  That’s how you get weight loss results that last a lifetime — that’s how you never have to try and diet on Thanksgiving again.

  1. Palascha, A., van Kleef, E., & van Trijp, H. C. (2015). How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain?. Journal of health psychology20(5), 638-648.

5 step Guide to Prevent Overeating on Thanksgiving

Are you ready to learn the skills that lead to Food Enjoyment? To not be handcuffed by stress eating? To eliminate the emotional guilt of "eating dessert"?

Every quarter I accept a handful of clients who are ready and willing to make the sacrifices needed to find lasting change just like I did. It won’t always be easy, and it won’t always be fun, but the results will be well worth all of it. And if you aren’t fully satisfied I guarantee 100% full refund!! 

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