In a perfect world it would be easy to say “this is one meal, I’m going to enjoy it,” but in the United States about two-thirds of adult Americans are considered overweight or obese and about half of adult Americans are trying to lose weight at any given time (CDC, 2018).
This time of the year can be difficult for many people for a number of reasons. I’ve talked about my own struggles for years including a recent post about the holidays specifically. The fall and winter not only bring on shorter days that play a role in seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but the holidays can bring trigger depression, anxiety and an abundance of stress in general for a number of reasons.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has provided tips for managing stress, anxiety and depression around the holidays from travel anxiety to how to help your anxious children as well how to de-stress. Some I found more helpful than others, but I do think it’s a generally helpful list.
A few years ago, Psychology Today posted a blog post talking about holiday anxiety and what it meant to the guest writer as well as how he coped through it.
However, many posts don’t talk about the eating behaviors that are triggered by the holidays: emotional eating (i.e. stress eating), restriction out of fear of indulging, binge eating triggered by allowing oneself to indulge, feelings of guilt for wanting to eat special holiday treats. There’s also a lack of realistic information on how to have a healthy balance and prevent overindulging around the holidays.
I’m not saying my tips are perfect, but like I said it’s easier to tell someone that it’s just one meal, it’s just one day than it is for them to hear that validation, understand it and execute an appropriate behavior. While I can’t control how my clients feel in the moment, I do seek to work with them to lessen their feelings of guilt and build their self-control so that they can enjoy experiences and not feel chained to restrictive behaviors.
So here’s my list:
- Make a plan for the day of your event so that you can participate how you want to at your event.
Planning your meals or your timing the day before or a few days before can decrease or eliminate the stress that comes with a change in routine. If you’re going to a dinner party and you know there’s a chance that there will be goodies you want, you can create two kinds of plans. Plan A: plan for earlier in the day that gives you nutrients you may not find at the party such as protein or carbohydrates from vegetables and fruits. I never recommend eating less during the day so you can compensate for later. Plan B: Eat your normal meals and allow yourself to enjoy the party with the potential of eating at maintenance for the day.
2. Make a plan for the next day so you have direction and can pick up where you left off.
The next day plan is crucial for success because it’s going to help you get moving in the direction you had been going prior to your social eating event. This plan should mimic your every day routine – it shouldn’t be drastic or used as punishment.
3. Ask the host about the menu and if you can bring a dish to share (if you want to).
Communication is important around the holidays because we all experience them differently. A former client of mine has IBS and was nervous about the food at a holiday party she was going to. As we talked about it, she realized that her friend didn’t realize she had a medical issue that warranted a different eating plan. After our talk, she planned to talk to her friend about the menu to see if there’s anything she could eat that was already planned. She also asked if she could bring a dish this way she knew there would be something that she could eat and wanted to eat. She never had to mention that she had a medical issue. Her friend was grateful for the offer to bring something and offered her information about the menu so she could plan.
While not everyone has a medical condition that requires specific eating, knowing the menu can help alleviate some stress that is brought on by holiday treats when someone is dieting. Having a routine is very important for most people and a change in that routine can be detrimental.
4. Don’t eat what you don’t like. Likewise, try what you want to.
I say this often and probably the same exact thing – does your grandmother make a really good cookie only at Christmas? Do you only have pie at Thanksgiving? Are meatballs on the table only at the holiday’s (JP’s family is half Italian)? There is an emotional connection to food throughout all cultures and in our close families the emotional connection can run deep and long. Restricting and denying yourself of items that are a once-a-year thing can be detrimental to emotional health. While you may see pounds lost on the scale over time, denial of these every-now-and-then treats may not be a sustainable lifelong approach.
This goes along with #1, make a plan. Eat the cookie, maybe you don’t eat four, or maybe you do, but take reasonable portions of what you want and go back for seconds if you want to if it’s something you truly enjoyed. Try to not allow the pressure of others pull you to consume foods you don’t want.
5. Maintain hydration like you would any other day.
Normal people i.e. people not dieting, don’t walk around with water bottles. Also, at parties, how many people are drinking water throughout the night, not just at the table?
It’s very easy to forget to drink water at a social gathering, and I’m not say you need to be that person who carries your water bottle, but just be mindful of your hydration throughout the day and the event. When you’re not preparing your food there can be higher amounts of sodium and sugar, also a higher consumption of carbohydrates than your normal can cause water retention.
6. Don’t weigh yourself after a social eating.
Does this really do you any good? If you ate differently than normal, what will the scale tell you that you don’t already have an inkling about? Refer back to #1 and #2 and #5. Wait a few days or up to a week for getting back to your normal for weight and measurements to adjust.
7. Don’t use exercise to punish yourself for what you want to eat or what you did eat.
Doing extra cardio to offset date nights or social engagements is creating a relationship with the gym and activity in general that encourages misuse. The gym is a tool to create a healthy lifestyle and to lose weight. If it become a chore or you start dreading it because of it’s connection to other behaviors involving food, it’s going to be harder to follow through and adhere to your plan.
If you exercise most days, maintain that. If a gym day falls on a social holiday, still go, but don’t alter the plan to “make up” for what you will be eating. Adding an activity like a walk after a meal isn’t the concern – we go for walks together after Thanksgiving. And for fun – JP and I started running races Thanksgiving morning last year, but be mobile because you want to, because it feels good – not because it’s a consequence.
I want you to enjoy the time with your loved ones – or by yourself, we all have different traditions. But I also know that food can bring on other anxieties outside of the typical stress that many experience from family engagements, socializing around this time of year (as well as other situations).
Make a plan. Be honest with yourself. Talk to someone you trust. And try to remember that this is a small blip in your journey – developing your control and recognizing these situations will help you develop emotionally and your mental health is just as important as your physical health.