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Thanksgiving is a time for overindulgence and feeling guilty. Break the cycle.

Not every holiday needs to revolve around overeating. Set boundaries, and help your loved ones keep to theirs, too.
Kids and adults gathering at the Thanksgiving table
'Tis the season for overindulgence.Alamy Stock Photo

Ahh, the end of the year. ‘Tis the season for overindulgence... and for guilt about one’s diet.

Eating (and overeating) has become such a large part of how we think about the holiday season that we treat the incoming New Year’s as resolution season — an opportunity to pay penance for the onslaught of alcohol and bad food we pummel ourselves with. But really, we treat resolution season as an excuse to overdo it the month before. Oh, it’s okay, because I’ll just burn it off at the gym, anyone?

Instead of employing reasonable boundaries around our consumption and indulgences, we try to explain them away as deliberate decisions made more reasonable by any even mediocre attempt to burn away the calories with lots of aggressive exercise — exercise that most Americans aren’t doing and, even though resolution season might be a motivating force, wouldn’t be able to keep up if they tried.

We are not doing either our indulgence or our "penance" correctly. We make excuses for enjoying ourselves with friends and family, and more excuses for enjoying the food laid out for our nourishment and happiness, regardless of its nutritional "quality." People are bringing all kinds of guilt and anxiety to their holiday tables and, instead of enjoying the company of their families and reasonable accommodations for traditions, freaking out about the "aftermath" and how to earn their excesses retroactively.

Is it a concern that so many of our communal gatherings revolve around food? Sure. We are a country that has yet to get a grip on what is contributing to our rising rates of chronic disease, and health care isn’t guaranteed to be accessible or affordable.

The nationwide rate of diabetes has risen in the United States, according to Gallup data published last week. The rates for heart disease and heart-related deaths have begun a slow tick upward in some populations. And when it comes to obesity, rates are consistently increasing, especially for children.

But the holiday season is a time on which we come together with friends and family, loved ones, co-workers and other people whose presence likely may "require" alcohol to be considered enjoyable. The freaking-out and excuse-making doesn’t do anything but feed our own anxieties about our health, making them worse. We believe we need to police our own behavior at all times, and punish ourselves when we transgress, and that this is what will make or keep us healthy.

The policing won’t help, but I have a few ideas about what might.

We need to encourage each other to engage with food not from a place of anxiety about health and diet, but from a place of community and pleasure. There is more to food than whether or not it will spend “a minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.” Food is how people who love us ensure that we are well fed—it’s a way to contribute to our literal well being. It’s okay if we enjoy that, express gratitude and indulge, especially if the holidays are the one time of year you see them.

We also need to think about ways to get together without it having to revolve around food — and often bad food, at that. Let’s be honest: Your aunt’s mashed potatoes that she swears are made from scratch (never mind the empty box-mix you see in her trash can) won’t be missed if you opt for a family event instead of a family dinner as a gathering. Even more, these get-togethers also tend to be loaded with lots of alcohol, a special kind of landmine for those who struggle with drinking too much.

Instead, we need to encourage people to erect personal boundaries around what is and is not acceptable eating behavior for them, and we need to honor those boundaries when people try to declare them. If a friend or family member says that they’re full, offering seconds isn’t helpful if they’ve already declined. If someone tells you that one drink is enough, don't offer again under the guise that it's the holiday party. And understand that it’s OK to say no. (But if saying no to food is a sore spot for you, eating something hearty like a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal before you go makes it much easier to decline extras.)

The holiday season started a bit early this year, so to speak, and perhaps that’s because people are feeling as if they’re in dire need of what this time of year gives them — good cheer, a sense of community and a reason to be happy when it might feel otherwise difficult. Let’s try to set aside the anxiety around food and enjoy the best part of this time of year: The hugs, the kisses, the laughter and the good vibes from people we love.

And, if it happens over a slice of pie, it’s okay! A small slice won’t truly last a lifetime — but the memories will, and that’s what matters most.