Thanksgiving 2012: Obesity in America is Not Caused By Thanksgiving Dinner

Health writers love to panic about obesity. More than writing about organic food, fad diets, or new recipes, they love to pen news stories about the dangers of obesity and the costs it creates for society. But during the holiday season, the circus that is health reporting in this country grows even more ridiculous as stories about the worst holiday foods and how to eat healthy on Thanksgiving begin to pop up in the news. 

I'll never get used to people complaining about what other people eat, because it's beyond irritating. But what's most bothersome about the warnings not to overeat on Thanksgiving is that they're entirely pointless. Obesity isn't caused, not even in part, by our holiday fare. And in fact, indulging our appetites for one day is not only harmless fun, it's actually an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

You may think I'm crazy after reading the previous sentence, but it's entirely accurate, because all we're really talking about is moderation. Yes, eating a mound of mashed potatoes and chasing it down with a slice of pie seems unwise at first glance. But at the same time, enjoying things that aren't necessarily healthy, even if only occasionally, is a part of being human. That's why holidays like Thanksgiving are ideal times to eat the food we wisely avoid (or should avoid) the rest of the year. These holidays only come once a year, and they only last for a day. So as long as we can keep our dessert-laden celebrations to one day, there's really nothing to worry about

Indulging on occasion is perfectly harmless, but that's not the only reason why it's acceptable. Eating whatever you want every so often is also an important part of maintaining a healthy diet the rest of the year. We know this is the case because research has shown over and over that staying on a strict diet is a massive pain in ass for most of us, to use scientific language. According to one study, 80 percent of dieters fail to lose weight and keep it off long term. But when you allow yourself planned days to go off your diet, you actually get better at sticking to it and managing your hunger the rest of the time.  

Allowing yourself to enjoy your favorite foods in this way gets you thinking about your diet differently. Instead of thinking of ocassional splurges as lapses in judgment, you treat them as manageable parts of your lifestyle, and you learn to control your eating habits more effectively as a result. Of course, all of this assumes that we eat well during the rest of the year, which many of us don't. And that's the problem.

Blaming holiday indulgence for obesity is just as wrongheaded as blaming soda consumption or fast food companies, and for the exact same reason: the American diet is pretty miserable generally, chock-full of all sorts of junk, and largely devoid of nutrition. Getting riled up over one kind of food or one part of the year when we eat too much completely misses the point.

As I wrote last month, right around the time the food cops began complaining about Halloween candy, obesity isn't a problem that sprang up overnight. Americans have been eating poorly for decades, and we've gotten fatter in response. We won't reverse that trend until we rethink our year-round eating habits, no matter how health conscious we try to be during the holidays. 

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Cameron English

I cover public health, nutrition and science education for PolicyMic. I also write critical thinking exercises for high school science textbooks. My previous work includes freelance writing and editing for Science 2.0. I've never been paid by Monsanto for my opinions, though that would be awesome.

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