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Here we are at Thanksgiving again!

It is wonderful to have a holiday where millions gather around tables to break bread with their loved ones and give thanks.

Still, there are challenges.

On top of all the emotions, there are also many new, tempting food choices around us.

Your routine is off, you have access to foods you do not normally see, and your family and friends expect to see you eating ‘traditional’ foods you grew up enjoying.

All the changes and ‘unknowns’ of the holiday season can be overwhelming.

Which brings us to the big question of the day.

As plant-based eaters, how do we keep up our positive behaviors during the holidays which are filled with festive gatherings and infinite food temptations?

Here are some ideas for you.

The Gift of Gratitude

One way to ensure positive, healthful choices is to give thanks on a daily basis.

In our last blog post, we talked at length about emotions and eating. We discussed how emotions affect our actions and how negative emotions can curb positive behavioral change.

But when we practice the art of gratitude, there is ZERO room for negative emotions (and thus negative behavior).

Which is why being grateful every single day is so important.

Even with all the ‘curve balls’ life throws us, there are so many things to be thankful for! Our friends, family, hobbies, health, the ability to walk and see. We have the freedom to work, to vote and to speak our minds. Freedoms that millions do not enjoy throughout the world.

Sometimes it is easy to focus on what we do not have. But constantly yearning for what is ‘missing’ serves only to drag us down.

It is better to remember what we DO have!

Which is why I adore Thanksgiving, a holiday devoted to giving thanks for the abundance already in our lives.

And as beautiful as Thanksgiving is, I still believe gratitude should be practiced every single day, not just once a year.

All you have to do is ask yourself in the morning (when you get up) and in the evening (before you go to bed), one simple question.

What am I grateful for?

And then you need to write down THREE reasons why you are grateful. (You can ‘think’ about your answers too but writing them down is preferable because ideas get more deeply embedded in our psyche when we write).

And remember, some of the best reasons to be thankful for are the things you carry with you all the time: your eyesight, your intelligence, your sense of humor, the love in your heart.

If you have had a really bad day, ask yourself a slightly different question.

What could I be grateful for if I wanted to?

This helps shift your thinking away from the negative feelings you might be experiencing.

It is always possible to find things to be thankful for.

Set this daily practice and you will see the difference.

It is simple. But extremely effective.

How to Pick Positive Behaviors During the Holiday Season

Remember that all our behaviors are a result of us needing to fill six basic needs: certainty, uncertainty, significance, love/connection, growth, and contribution.

The question is whether we fulfill these needs in a positive or negative manner.

Let’s examine each need to discover new ways to ‘frame’ the holiday eating experience in such a way that we stick to healthful choices at every meal.

  1. Certainty: This is the need to know (for certain!) that you can avoid pain and gain pleasure.

One way of meeting the ‘certainty’ need during the holidays would be simply to relent and eat the ‘traditional’ (non-whole, plant-based) foods that you grew up with.

You may know ‘for certain’ that they would give you instant pleasure, and by eating them, you would avoid the pain of saying ‘no’ and being judged by loved ones.

(This is particularly true of people who are just starting out in their whole food, plant-based transition and who may feel the pain of not being able to eat what they are ‘used to.’)

But you can also meet the need for certainty by making healthful, plant-based choices throughout the holidays.

As always, it is all about your FOCUS and the MEANING you place behind the behavior.

When you consume traditional foods, the ‘pleasure’ comes from eating animal foods. However, when you eat plant-based, the ‘pleasure’ is from NOT eating animal foods and the knowledge that you will feel great before, during and after the holiday meal.

In other words, the focus is simply reversed!

In addition, the plant-based choice is more healthful in the long-term. It makes sense to focus on what will give you pleasure and help you avoid pain in the long run—not only at one meal.

Instead of dwelling on the ‘pain’ of having different dietary choices, see yourself being an example to your loved ones.

Instead of fearing judgment, become less judgmental of others.

Instead of worrying about being a ‘burden,’ bring a couple of plant-based dishes to share.

  1. Uncertainty/Variety: This is the need for new stimuli and change.

Holiday food is different from what you eat most of the year and would undoubtedly stimulate the senses.

However, eating a Thanksgiving meal based on plants can be just as exciting! It can be a varied, delicious feast for yourself AND the non-plant-based eaters seated at the table.

If you are starting your transition to the plant-based lifestyle, you might feel like you ‘crave’ traditional foods.

If that is the case, make sure that the plant-based recipes you choose are as colorful and textured as possible, which will help to fulfill the need for variety.

  1. Significance: This is the need to feel special, needed and important.

The holiday season makes us all feel special. And that ‘specialness’ spills over to the food.

Let’s be honest. What is more special than grandma baking that apple pie or mom slaving over the stove all day to serve us a feast?

And yet, we can meet the need for significance just as easily by choosing healthful plant-based foods.

That is because, as a plant-based eater, you are special by definition. You are part of a small but steadily growing and incredibly supportive group. You are special because you know deep down that your lifestyle choice protects your health, the animals and the environment all at the same time.

  1. Love/Connection: This is the need to feel close or in union with someone or something.

Holidays are all about connection and love. Traditional holiday fare is a symbol of that since food is one of the main ways people give and receive love.

But maybe we need to ‘break’ the food-love link and learn to give/receive love completely independently from food.

It is the love and connection that matters, not just the food. Focus on the fact that you have gathered together to enjoy each other’s company. On preparing the table and the meal as a family. Or watching that game or movie together.

There are so many ways to experience love and connection. All you have to do is consciously choose something other than food to fulfill this particular need.

In last year’s blog post about how to eat healthfully during the holidays, our three ‘prescriptions’ were to be present, be prepared and be kind to yourself.

Talking to your host or family about your plant-based lifestyle in advance is a classic example of preparation. Focusing on relationships and the ‘shared’ activities are ways of being present and living in the moment.

And being gentle with yourself?

Well, that is probably the most important way to meet this basic need. Be gentle with yourself. Love yourself, first and foremost.

Expand and Give

Finally the last two needs—growth and contribution—are needs of the soul. Growth refers to our need for expansion and contribution is our need to give to others through service.

Unlike the first four needs, they are unlikely to be fulfilled by negative means given their very nature.

Let’s take growth first. The holidays are really the perfect time to meet this need, to connect not only with loved ones but also with ourselves. It is a time of reassessment, renewal, and expansion.

Having said that, it is extremely difficult to grow when you are engaging in negative behaviors (overeating or eating foods that are bad for you, or drinking too much). Growth, therefore, is predicated on being in a positive place.

And last but not least we come to contribution. The holiday season fits this need like a glove. How about donating food, money or time to those in need? This is the season to feel good about yourself by making the lives of others better.

What About Everyone Around Me?

To change any behavior permanently, we need to pass through three levels of mastery:

  1. Cognitive Mastery (intellectual understanding).
  2. Emotional Mastery (control of emotions).
  3. Physical Mastery (embodiment of a new behavior).

Each level builds onto the next.

As you transition to a plant-based lifestyle, it is extremely tempting to want to ‘convert’ your loved ones. You are excited about what you are discovering and you would like to share the amazing benefits you feel.

However, it is essential to recognize that where you are in the mastery sequence might be different than where other people you love are situated. Be patient. Continue the journey by yourself.

Even if your loved ones believe in what you are doing and ‘know’ the value of being plant-based, they may not have mastered it enough to move onto the next level. Respect their rhythm and their journey. Learn to identify where they are and celebrate it!

Let people pick the pace that is comfortable for them.

It took me a while to learn how to be supportive rather than to nag. Every once and awhile, I still catch myself ‘preaching’ to loved ones about their food choices. Despite the fact that nagging comes from a good place (after all, we want our family and friends to live long and healthy lives), it does not achieve much.

Holidays are about gratitude. But this season is also about tolerance and acceptance.

Those are gifts we all can give. If our loved ones accept our food choices this holiday, we should accept theirs as well.

The food is important, but the focus should be on the love we share.

In the end, that is really all that matters.

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.