The most commonly cited statistic regarding Thanksgiving is not what we eat, or who we eat it with, but how MUCH we eat: approximately 4500 calories worth, according to the Calorie Control Council. Now, Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times has countered that calculation, adding up the calories in a typical Thanksgiving dinner to estimate that a more realistic figure is probably closer to 2500 calories. Regardless, it’s a lot of food, and it can be problematic in that it sets the tone for 5-6 weeks of repeated holiday indulgence.
To be honest, I haven’t personally given holiday weight gain too much thought, figuring that I probably run enough to maintain weight stability. For example, if I spend an extra hour at the dessert buffet one night during holiday party season, I’ll just run it off the next day…right? Recently, though, this belief was challenged when Outside Magazine asked me to provide some tips on avoiding holiday overload and maintaining a healthy body weight. The full article can be found here, but I want to focus specifically on something interesting that caught my attention as I was writing the article: compensatory beliefs.
According to the authors of a 2011 research article, compensatory beliefs are “convictions that the consequences of engaging in an indulgent behaviour (eating cake) can be neutralized by the effects of another behaviour (skipping dinner).” In my personal and professional experience, physically active individuals often believe that they can minimize the effect of any dietary indulgence with other compensatory behaviors (such as exercising more and/or skipping meals the next day). But the research cited above suggests that individuals with greater compensatory beliefs actually eat more. For example, among the 78 participants enrolled in the study, those with compensatory beliefs were more likely to form compensatory intentions (consciously “allowing themselves to indulge “now” with the plan to make-up for it “later””) when faced with dietary temptation. These individuals did indeed then consume extra calories. Although their ability to compensate effectively wasn’t measured, other research suggests that most people fail to subsequently follow through with their plan to compensate through additional exercise and/or caloric restriction. They form compensatory intentions, eat more, and then don’t end up compensating.
So, I have to say, it sounds as though my faith in my own caloric resiliency may be misguided. Rather than going into the holiday season with confidence in my ability to overeat and respond with effective compensation, perhaps I should instead just …not overeat. Easier said than done when pie is on the table, of course.