Many people resign themselves to gaining weight over the holidays, promising to “get back on track” in the new year. They then find themselves hungry and discouraged at the end of January when, despite strict dieting and overexercising for three weeks, the scale hasn’t budged enough to be worth the misery. Taking a more sustainable, flexible approach to eating throughout the end of the year (without promises to throw yourself into bootcamp on January 1st!) can result in a much more pleasurable holiday season with fewer feelings of guilt or shame.
Below are tips to reduce food-related stress during the holidays and to help November through January eating patterns look more like patterns the rest of the year.
Don’t Threaten Yourself with Weight-Based New Year’s Resolutions
Setting New Year’s Resolutions to restrict amounts or categories of food, or to do very intense exercises in the new year, sets the stage for overeating behaviors to occur in the preceding weeks. Guilt related to overeating causes us to double down on the perceived need for dramatic food-related resolutions. This intensifies our internal messages that the foods we are eating during the holidays are “for a limited time only,” activating a sense of scarcity. Feeling like food is scarce, even when it isn’t, increases the drive to consume food, often resulting in overeating. We are better off setting new years resolutions that focus on behaviors, not results, and are realistic for our current functioning. If you don’t currently exercise, “I will walk for ten minutes after dinner three nights a week” is much less likely to activate problematic eating leading up to acting on that resolution than a resolution to “walk 5 miles every day and lose 30 lbs by February 1st..”
Focus on Meals Rather than Grazing
Rather than having “just a little something” here and there throughout the day, focus on consuming your desired foods together as meals. Grazing can distort our perceptions of how much we have eaten because it blunts our hunger cues without activating our fullness cues, so we miss messages from our bodies about our needs and generally take in more than we typically would during meals. Sitting down to eat rather than lingering in the kitchen or near a buffet can help to shift to a meal vs grazing mindset. Focusing on meals allows us to have the foods we enjoy, plan to meet our nutritional needs, and respond appropriately to our hunger and fullness cues. Limiting holiday foods to specific meals on specific holidays rather than partaking in holiday foods all day, every day throughout the season can help these foods to maintain their significance and reduce the impact of taking in much more salt, sugar, or fat than is typical in a short period of time.
Prioritize Eating what You Enjoy
People who try to diet through Thanksgiving often find themselves overeating by mid-December. Feeling restricted at an abundant time of year can create feelings of deprivation and resentment that can then become apathy and anger and fuel overeating. Including valued and preferred foods in smaller amounts, rather than forbidding them, can reduce the risk of overeating them later. Many people eat what they think they “should,” get full, still want dessert, eat it, feel too full, and then feel guilty. It makes for a much better physical and emotional meal experience to have a few bites of dessert early in a meal that meets your nutritional needs and wants and then stop when you are comfortably full. Without being sluggish and remorseful, you’ll feel better able to engage with your family and friends.
Pick a Strategy
It can be helpful to decide at a gathering if you’d rather try many foods or focus on consuming a larger portion of fewer foods. You might take a “Painter’s Palette” approach and put a dab of all the foods that appeal to you on your plate, with a focus on including proteins and produce in addition to starchier or sweeter offerings. If you prefer quantity to variety, you may focus on picking your favorite protein, produce, starch/sweet that is offered and consuming larger portions of those top foods relative to what you would serve with the palette approach. These approaches allow you to enjoy your preferred eating style and foods, while meeting your nutritional needs. Stopping when you’re comfortably full will allow you to enjoy the gathering beyond the meal.
Holiday foods are a wonderful way to mark the passing of another year and to celebrate with family and friends; going completely without or overconsuming can contribute to a negative emotional experience at this time of year. Finding new ways to enjoy our favorites in moderation allows us to connect to the deeper meanings of the holidays without adversely impacting our mental and physical health. At the Bariatric Counseling Center, we support clients in implementing practices such as these to maintain improved health for the long term, during the holidays and throughout their lives.
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