When did the holidays become all about food, rather than focused on friends and family? It seems from Halloween to Valentine’s Day, it’s one food-filled event or celebration after another. Even the most resolute find it difficult to say “no thank you” to the endless array of festive drinks and edible indulgences. Combating what seems like inevitable weight gain (statistics range from 1 to 10 pounds gained from September through March) can be difficult, but not impossible.
Know Thy Enemy
Experts agree it’s important to understand why sticking to healthy habits over the holidays is so difficult. A number of factors collude to trigger the urge to overeat.
Stress — “In an effort to ensure that you have the perfect holiday, you’re doing all these extra things, like making sure you have the right decorations and sending cards,” says Bethany Thayer, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “All that extra work can be overwhelming. It can add to the stress, and the stress can lead to the overeating.”
Celebrations — Food-focused celebrations abound, and alcohol is often a part of socializing. With increased opportunity and temptation, plus the obligatory nature of many holiday get-togethers, keeping your resolve can be difficult.
Cold weather — It gets dark earlier, the air is nippy, and nothing sounds more appealing than comfort food (often high in fat and calories).
Time constraints — With extra obligations comes encroachment on exercise time. “The No. 1 reason people report for not exercising is lack of time,” says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
Emotional eating — For some, the holidays can be extra hard to handle emotionally. Using food to soothe sadness, anxiety or dissatisfaction is common. Others use the holidays as an excuse to overindulge.
Sleep deprivation — Getting ready for and attending all the festivities can leave you feeling tired and sluggish. Stress, depression or anxiety may affect your sleep, and when people are tired, they tend to overeat or eat less healthfully.
Decreased physical activity — Full stomachs, depression, anxiety and cold weather also make it mighty easy to talk yourself out of sticking to your fitness regimen.
Experts say the key to survival boils down to doing three things: Practice awareness, manage your stress and emotions, and plan in advance. “Don’t drive yourself to unattainable or perfectionist standards, says Linda Farr, R.D., L.D., and founder of Nutrition Associates of San Antonio (NutritiousTable.com). “Aim for moderation, not perfection. Strict dieting over the holidays is not very realistic and can set you up for feeling like a failure. Think of it this way: ‘Since the average person gains 2 to 7 pounds over the holidays, maintaining my pre-holiday weight is great success!’”
Here are some strategies you can use in your battle against the bulge:
1. Be mindful
Don’t plan to diet after Jan. 1. Anticipation of food restriction sets you up for binge-type eating — “I won’t be able to eat this homemade chocolate after the holidays, so I might as well eat all I can now!” Better to adopt Julia Child’s philosophy. “Life itself is the proper binge,” said the famed chef and avid foodie. “Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health.”
Size matters. If you’re at a celebration with a lot of food, take small portions so you can try all the dishes. Allow yourself treats on the actual holidays, but watch your portions. Instead, slow down and enjoy each bite.
Keep moving. Look for opportunities to burn calories. Chase the kids when you’re at parties, take the stairs, park far away when you’re shopping, take a brisk walk, or walk to a co-worker’s desk rather than calling or e-mailing.
Sabotage your environment to avoid overeating. “A cozy blanket, inviting sofa and comfort food are key ingredients to mindless eating,” says Letty Holmbo, registered dietitian and owner of Balance Living nutrition services, (balanceliving.biz). “Increase mindfulness by increasing your discomfort: Eat at the kitchen table on the hard chair and in a chilly room without your sweater. Even 10 minutes will seem too long when your next stop is curling up under the covers to watch your favorite show.”
2. Manage stress and emotions
Turn to people, not food, for comfort. Farr notes that during times of stress, our nutritional needs are at an all-time high, and many people consume too many of the wrong things, such as alcohol, caffeine and sugary or salty comfort foods.
Lower your expectations. You don’t have to host and cook the holiday meal — make it a potluck to reduce your load.
Be active every day. Farr says not only does exercise reinvigorate you mentally and physically, it burns calories, boosts the immune system and helps curb emotional eating.
Blend physical activity with holiday gatherings. Holmbo suggests taking a walk around the neighborhood to look at light displays, playing a Wii game, dancing or registering for a community walk.
Talk more; eat less. Don’t fill awkward silence at parties with food or drink. Instead try to really get to know people beyond small talk.
Just say no. It’s an art to abstain from food or activities that aren’t in your best interest. Take the lead, and you may find you have followers.
Prioritize, then let the rest go. “For many, the most important thing about the holiday season is family, faith and sharing with the less fortunate,” says Farr. “When you identify and focus on what is most important, stress-related behaviors such as overindulgence should diminish.”
Don’t overdo it with alcohol or caffeine. These stimulants will only cause you more grief in the end by adding to your feelings of stress. Try drinking hot herbal tea instead of coffee, and keep the number of alcoholic drinks to a minimum.
3. Make a plan
Plan ahead for parties and family meals. “When party time comes around, eat a little snack before you go to keep from overeating those high-calorie temptations,” Farr recommends. “If there aren’t a lot of healthy foods to choose from, just remember to use moderation. All foods can fit if you use this rule. If you’re hosting a dinner party or family gathering, stock your kitchen with these healthy, low-calorie foods that can have multiple uses as appetizers and ingredients in your favorite recipes”:
Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables
Applesauce to replace oil in baked goods
Broth, fresh herbs and seasonings to provide non-fat flavorings
Non-fat or low-fat yogurt, milk and cheeses. Research shows that consuming 3 cups of dairy foods every day can keep your weight in control.
Grilled or broiled seafood and tender lean meats
Limit yourself to one helping. That doesn’t mean pile your one plate high either — sample-size portions are perfect.
Designate a consequence. Holmbo says holding yourself accountable for your behavior can influence how you choose to respond to your emotions. “Rather than throwing up your hands and surrendering, establish a consequence based on what motivates you to avoid emotional eating,” she advises. “Share your consequence with someone who will hold you accountable to follow through. Self-destructive behavior can change if the motivation is high enough.”
Avoid foods you don’t really care for. If you’re going to consume calories, make it something rare or something you enjoy immensely.
Don’t tempt yourself. If you can’t eat just one piece of chocolate, don’t have one at all, or make a deal with yourself to have one special treat at a designated time of day when you can really savor it without distraction. After visiting a buffet, leave the room that’s filled with food. If sweets are in the office break room, don’t go there. If you’re given unhealthy food as a gift, bring it to the office to share.
Take healthy snacks with you while traveling. This way you won’t be tempted to stop for high-fat fast food or sweets.
Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial to your overall health and longevity. It’s a key factor in avoiding heart disease, various cancers and diabetes. Even if you’re currently overweight, by not adding pounds this season, you’ll be doing yourself a favor. After all, it’s much easier NOT to gain weight than it is to lose it. Cheers!
Author: Kelly A. Goff