Indulging, splurging, pigging out. Whatever you call it, we all throw calorie caution to the winds occasionally during the holidays (OK, maybe more often than we care to admit). Then come the self-recrimination, the inevitable guilt and a vow never to do it again. But is all that drama really necessary? No, says New York City-based Bonnie Taub-Dix, M.A., R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Guilt is never a good side dish." Her advice? "Close your eyes and enjoy every bite and make those calories truly worth it."

Even the 2005 U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines give the green light to a little government-sanctioned cheating -- thanks to the "discretionary calories" now allowed. Translation: It's perfectly OK to have a few sweet and gooey treats (the guidelines suggest 10-15 percent of the day's calories). But before you get down to cashing in your discretionary calories, keep in mind the following ground rules for cheating without paying too high a price.

  1. Get over the guilt.
    Your new mantra is, "Nothing is forbidden." Once you've accepted that dietary basic, guilt is banned from the table. "Guilt can cause you to disconnect from your real feelings about food," says Marsha Hudnall, M.S., R.D., program director at Green Mountain at Fox Run in Ludlow, Vt., a women-only healthy weight-loss retreat. Any behavior that's driven by guilt is hard to control; eating is no exception. Instead of focusing on your guilt, opt for a rational assessment of portion sizes. You can have anything your heart desires, if moderation is your MO and you keep portions under control. It's those all-you-can-eat buffets at your company's annual holiday dinner party, and jumbo servings at most eateries and at home that ultimately expand your waistline, not the occasional splurge.

  2. If you cheat, make sure to do it in a public place.
    Call off that illicit affair between you and those crispy french fries. (Admit it; when was the last time you ate your favorite cheat food around family and friends?) Exposing your secret desire to the light of day takes away the irresistible allure, and with it, much of the temptation. "I believe one of the most important skills to have is to learn how to splurge, then go back to healthy eating right away," says Katherine Tallmadge, M.A., R.D., author of Diet Simple: 192 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations (LifeLine, 2004). Her advice: Go ahead and splurge in front of others, and then get on with your life.

  3. Break the chain that links cheating with a lack of willpower.
    You may have eaten one serving too many of your Mom's pecan pie a la mode, but don't think of it as a loss of will-power. Think of it as a well-considered decision you made: You weighed your options and decided to go for it. Now move on. Dwelling on indulgences and regretting your actions does nothing but diminish your successes. Besides, Tallmadge says, "Research has found that inflexible, restrictive diets are more likely to result in relapses and ultimately a regain of the weight you've lost.

  4. Don't try to be an angel. Aim for progress, not perfection.
    You enjoy chocolate. OK, so in truth you're actually a certified chocoholic. A day without a bite of the dark stuff for you just isn't complete. However, since you've started on your new healthy eating program, you've managed to whittle your chocolate fixes to only a couple a week. That's progress, to be sure, but not perfection. And that's a good thing: If dietary perfection is your goal, we hate to burst your bubble -- but disappointment and failure are guaranteed. Remember, says Louisville, Ky., nutritionist and exercise physiologist Christopher R. Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., you can still keep good nutrition in mind even when indulging. "When you cheat, focus on foods that also provide a benefit, like dark chocolate, which packs a healthy dose of antioxidants," Mohr suggests.

  5. It's absolutely OK, and even appropriate, to skip certain meals!
    If you're not hungry, you shouldn't eat. As if you needed someone like Shape to remind you of that! But think about it. How many times during the holiday season have you munched away on any number of indulgences because of social obligation when you were nowhere near hungry? This particular rule requires a little internal reality check, but once you become tuned in to your real feelings of hunger (your stomach starts to growl, you feel truly empty and you might even feel the beginning of a headache coming on), mindless munching becomes a thing of the past. "Many of us eat when we're not hungry because we've learned to soothe ourselves with food -- we've become emotional eaters," Hudnall says. "The trick to separating physical hunger from emotional hunger is to know how your own body signals a need for food." And once you get a handle on that, you'll be far less likely to overindulge for emotional reasons.