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Holiday Calories Don’t Count (Or: A Dieting Lie That’s OK to Believe)

Woman eating a Christmas cookie while drinking some hot chocolate.
Alliance Images/Shutterstock

How many times have you heard or even told the infamous, “It’s the holidays so calories don’t count,”  or, “I’m gonna enjoy all the candy on my birthday, after all, calories don’t count?” Is there any truth to those statements?

Calories Are Calories

Whether you’re eating a salad or grabbing that Snickers bar, your body is intaking calories. 100 kcal in one food and 100 kcal in another are still 100 kcal, so although their nutritional profile is different, the amount you’re consuming is absolutely the same. Does that mean you should eat your daily food intake in Snickers?

No, of course not. But it also means you can allow yourself a treat or two without freaking out about the amount of sugar and processed ingredients. If 10 percent of your 2,000 kcal daily intake comes from your grandma’s chocolate cake and the remaining 90 percent from whole foods and nutrient-dense ingredients, is it really worth stressing about?

Stress Less

See, the most important thing when it comes to digestion is what we’re doing while we’re eating, how we’re feeling at that moment, and whether or not we’re already thinking how we’ll have to spend extra time on the treadmill tomorrow.

Stress is the worst possible factor we can introduce into our lives. It impairs our body’s functions, including digestion and nutrient absorption. In fact, numerous studies show a link between stress and obesity and all sorts of illnesses, and they have nothing to do with the quality of food we eat. All this shows keeping our stress to a minimum is more important than whether or not we’ll have another slice  of Christmas pie or another cookie.

Stress plays a huge role in how anything we feel, do, and eat gets recognized by our own bodies, and that’s why sometimes you might be doing all the “right things” and eating all the “right foods,” and still fight with those last 5-10 stubborn pounds. When stress occurs, our bodies go into protection mode because they cannot exactly know what caused it: a lion chasing us through the jungle, our boss yelling at us for not delivering on a project, anxiety that builds up when airplane turbulence hits, or feeling guilty about eating too much for three days in a row. Whatever the cause, our bodies’ response is the same: fight or flight.

In that state, stress hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline) rise, our body temperature goes up (that’s why we start sweating), our heart starts beating faster, and our senses become more alert (in case we need to pay attention to that lion hiding in the bushes). In turn, every body function we don’t need for survival from  imminent danger is turned off—just like that. Our digestion, reproduction system, sleep hormone production—all of it gets temporarily shut down as our energy goes towards “saving ourselves” from whatever’s attacking us.

The holiday season brings a ton of stress into our lives already, so trying to keep it down will lower your inflammation and inflammatory response, and you’ll be able to enjoy all the holiday festivities, including the food. After all, the holidays are here for spending some quality time with family and friends, and worrying about the food you’ve eaten really doesn’t serve anyone, including you.

So, Do Calories Count Or Not?

A family gathered around a large dining room table for a holiday feast.

Although the foods we “allow” ourselves on these special occasions such as birthdays, holidays, and vacation might be more processed, not-so-full of nutrients, and rich in “forbidden” sugars and fats, there is some truth in saying that “calories don’t count.”

See, the days we choose to indulge are special days in our lives, which make us feel happy, relaxed, and in turn, less stressed about the food we’re about to consume. We’re usually surrounded by friends, family, and all of our loved ones, which only adds to a “lowered stress” environment and therefore brings a sense of peace into our lives.

In a situation where stress is minimal, eating something that’s not really “good” for us makes a crazy inflammatory response less possible, and therefore allows our body to take whatever it can from the calories we consume and flush out the rest without causing too much collateral damage. That’s why birthdays, holidays, and all sorts of celebrations fall into this category: There are more feelings of happiness, joy, love, and an overall sense of peace.

Get Right Back on Track

All these special occasions usually last a day, a couple of days, or maybe even a week, but not a month or a whole year. In the grand scheme of things, it’s really not that long. Allowing yourself to indulge a little and eat your favorite foods is completely fine, and when the occasion passes, you’ll be able to get right back on track.

So whether it’s eating your weight in pasta and ice cream in Italy for a week (how could you not?), indulging in wine and cheese in Napa for a weekend (what else is there to do?), buying yourself a dozen doughnuts for your birthday (because you deserve it), or eating a quarter of your favorite Christmas dish (that brings you back to your childhood), there’s always an “end,” and there’s always the following day to get back on track.

Although the pasta and ice cream diet isn’t something we’d ever recommend on a daily basis and although calories still stay the same no matter what day of the year it is, indulging on these special occasions with people we love—doing things that bring a smile to our face—actually does make us feel like calories really don’t count.

Karla Tafra Karla Tafra
Karla is a certified yoga teacher, nutritionist, content creator and an overall wellness coach with over 10 years of international experience in teaching, writing, coaching, and helping others transform their lives. From Croatia to Spain and now, the US, she calls Seattle her new home where she lives and works with her husband. Read Full Bio »
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