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Why the Mindset that You Need to “Earn” or “Burn Off” Extra Calories During The Holidays Does More Harm Than Good

November 21, 2023

Self-Paced Course: Non-Diet Academy


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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

The idea that we must earn our food through exercise or burn it off is a really toxic and unhelpful message from diet culture and fitness culture. Just to be a living breathing human being you already deserve and require calories. We’ve been told all this stuff about calories in, calories out, and it makes it sound like we need to account for every calorie we consume by burning it off with exercise. This simply isn’t true. 

A big part of why we’re so obsessed with burning off calories this time of year is all the fear mongering around holiday weight gain. We constantly are being told that the average person gains X amount of pounds during the holiday season – and therefore we need to be hypervigilant about the food we eat and the exercise we do. 

Here’s a fun fact – it’s a myth. Yep, you heard that right. Turns out the average person does NOT gain weight during the holidays. Last year I got curious where all of this holiday weight gain rhetoric came from and if there was any truth to it, so I looked to see if there were any actual research studies on this topic, and it turns out there are. And what the studies show is that the average person gains less than a pound during the holidays, which is nothing. Our weight can fluctuate a few pounds per day, so tenths of a pound means we are weight stable. 

And I really want you to think about this for a minute…If the notion of holiday weight gain isn’t real, how does that change things for you? How does that change the way you experience the holidays if you weren’t living in fear of weight gain? I encourage you to literally journal about this. This is a really good thought experiment to ask yourself, “What if I wasn’t worried about gaining weight right now? How would I approach the holiday season differently?” 

The Negative Impact On Our Relationship With Food

If you are frequently having thoughts like these, you’re stuck in the diet mentality and it’s probably keeping you in a cycle of trying to “be good” only to find yourself feeling guilty: 

  • I’m probably going to eat way too many calories at Thanksgiving, so I should probably do some extra workouts this week.
  • That cookie was loaded with sugar. I feel so gross.
  • I’m SO glad I did that bootcamp workout. I burned tons of calories and earned myself some extra treats at the Christmas party.

Often we equate how much we’ve exercised or how many calories we’ve eaten with whether or not we’re a good person. I get it. I’ve absolutely been there. What I came to realize is that is a deeply flawed line of thinking. The notion that you’re a good person if you worked out today implies that you’re a bad person if you didn’t work out. But that doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny, does it? Did you do anything morally wrong by not working out? Absolutely not. But if we don’t slow down to notice and challenge these thoughts we end up walking around and operating our lives as if they’re true. 

This leads to so much stress and anxiety. It’s exhausting to walk around with the constant food, exercise and weight chatter in your head. And let’s face it, this time of year is stressful enough with all of the holiday gatherings, the expectation to “eat, drink and be merry,” the financial pressure of gift buying, wrapping presents, decorating the tree, and being around people you haven’t seen in a while. It’s a lot to juggle. 

It also distracts from the other aspects of the holidays. It’s hard to be fully present when decorating cookies with your kids if you’re worried that you’re going to binge on them after they go to bed. It’s hard to truly connect and catch up with your sister-in-law at your family Christmas when you’re doing the math on your workout for the next day based on what you ate. 

Shifting to a Different (More Compassionate) Mindset

There are 5 things that I want you to remind yourself of – and I encourage you to write these down:

  1. Holiday weight gain is a myth. You don’t need to worry about it.
  2. Even if you do gain weight during the holidays, it says nothing about your character or worth as a person. It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong or failed. 
  3. Obsessing about calories and exercise adds unnecessary stress to an already stressful time of year.
  4. Your body has the built-in mechanisms to tell you how much food you need to eat. You CAN trust your body if you listen. 
  5. Exercise isn’t for the purpose of burning off the food you ate or earning the food you want to eat. Exercise is to help your body and your mind feel strong, calm, energized, and all sorts of other things that movement helps with. We need to work on redefining the purpose of exercise.

If we can separate exercise from being about calories, then it frees us up to use it in more positive and compassionate ways. We can make it about connecting with our bodies and caring for our bodies. In fact, I have a little homework for you: I want you to make a list of reasons to move your body that have nothing to do with burning calories. I’m serious. I want you to write this down, either on a piece of paper or in a note on your phone. The act of writing will help your brain integrate this. 

Wrapping up

When it comes to food during the holidays, give yourself permission to eat the things you enjoy without tying it to exercise. Eat mindfully, listen to your body, trust your body. It’s ok if your eating looks a little different this time of year. That’s pretty normal, and your body can handle this, I promise. 

I hope that this episode is thought-provoking and inspiring for you, and I hope that you feel better about how to navigate this holiday season with more confidence and trust in yourself and your body. 

With love,


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