Should You Eat Whatever You Want for the Holidays?

4 minute read

Welcome to Should I Eat This?—our weekly poll of five experts who answer nutrition questions that gnaw at you.

should i eat whatever i want
Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME

3/5 experts say no.

It’s the holidays and you’re an adult, so chances are you’ll be stuffing your face far more than your stocking. But is eating whatever you want until the New Year a good idea?

Most experts agree it’s not. But the blow-your-diet debate was a closer race than we expected.

First, let’s start with the finger-waggers.

Eating whatever you want will definitely cause weight gain, says Kate Patton, registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute (and a nutrition expert without much faith that your holiday pleasure foods are broccoli and Brussels sprouts). “Though a 1-pound weight gain over the holiday season may not seem like much, the truth is most Americans do not lose that pound,” she says. Let enough free-for-all holidays go by—remember, we have about a dozen a year—and that weight gain will catch up to you and increase your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, she says.

Jo-Ann Jolly, registered dietitian at American University, agrees. “From my experience with weight loss counseling, clients who use their upcoming New Year’s resolution as an excuse to binge eat beforehand tend to have very poor long-term compliance,” she says. “Definitely allow yourself a treat once or twice a week, but listen to your hunger cues and practice mindful portioning to avoid holiday binges.”

That’ll help you stick to your dietary resolutions when they roll around on January 1, which is a proven powerful day for committing to big-picture changes. Hitting the reset button won’t be as jarring if you’ve been maintaining your weight. “Our bodies don’t take a vacation and can’t distinguish between holiday calories and non-holiday calories,” says Los Angeles registered dietitian and nutrition consultant Andrea N. Giancoli.

Three experts suggested prioritizing your favorite foods as a good way to eat what you really want, not what happens to be in front of you. Even an expert who approved of holiday dietary amnesty, Texas Children’s Hospital registered dietitian Roberta H. Anding, qualified her thumbs up with the caveat that you exercise portion control and eat only your favorite offenders. “My favorite is chocolate, so I don’t eat treats that aren’t chocolate,” she says.

But don’t despair, moderate holiday gourmands. You have someone squarely on your side. “At the holidays, you should enjoy,” says Dr. David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “That includes—within reason—eating what you want.” In his piece defending the end-of-December culinary carte blanche, Katz argues that eating whatever we want during the holidays gives us pleasure, and pleasure reduces stress. If you’re devoting too much brainpower trying to decide what foods you need to avoid, you’re likely to miss out on the cheery social connections that actually improve your health.

But (and of course there’s a but) the trick is to eat well all year long, so by the time the holidays roll around, you’ll actually crave healthier food. “Focus on eating wholesome foods in sensible combinations every day—and then you will find that eating what you want on a holiday does not involve debauchery,” Katz says. “You will love foods that love you back.”

Read next: Should I Drink Diet Soda?

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