Despite the positive associations that the media portrays about the holiday season, the holidays can be an incredibly stressful time. Between the shopping, spending and socializing with loved ones, as well with those who rub us the wrong way, the holidays can bring out our worst. While most of us manage not to ‘act out’, the anxiety surrounding certain situations sometimes creeps up, in other ways.
I have had several people approach me recently and ask if I have any tips about eating right during the holidays. Many expressed that not only do they experience normal holiday stress during this time, but they also become incredibly anxious about food during the holidays. For those who have been doing great on diets or nutrition programs, they fear they will lose control when seated in front of all that traditional and delicious food. The holidays are often when we are willing to let our inner child out and that is great–provided our inner child is not wounded. Before we know what has happened, many discover that our inner child has been running the show for weeks at a time and we have eaten anything and everything we want.
So why does this happen during the holidays? Well let’s not forget that food is hugely cultural. Food has, and always will be much more than physically nourishing. Because food has such strong emotional and social connections, we may find ourselves during this rich cultural and social time of the year, eating much more than we intend or want to. The holidays can also be powerful triggers of old behaviour and unresolved hurts as we enter into situations that make us uncomfortable and vulnerable.
There are several tricks and tips that I recommend to avoid overeating or eating foods that we want to avoid. They all boil down to skill power instead of willpower. However, few of the other skills will work if we do not address the real triggers, and often those come down to emotional overeating and ‘diet trauma’.
The first approach to holiday eating is to gear up. While preparing healthy treats and meals ahead of time is great, the real gearing up has to do with managing stress. While holiday overeating may be due in part to mindless eating, stress eating often plays a large role. Elevated stress causes our body to secrete more insulin which not only results in blood sugar irregularities, but an unstable mood. Insulin also triggers cravings for carbs and sweets leaving us even more vulnerable to overeating. And so begins the vicious cycle. As you may have guessed by now, the key is in managing stress.
Many of us, even ones with sane families, do not realise how stressful the holidays can be. The racing around for gifts, the pressure to find the right one, negotiating which party to attend and which to forgo, plays a toll to say the least. Some of us are dealing with loss and at at time of year that is so family orientated, we may find ourselves dealing with some pretty heavy grief. We certainly can’t eliminate all of these stressors, but we can buffer our stress levels with lifestyle and tools.
Some suggested ways to manage stress-eating during the holidays are:
1) Exercise – Get some exercise everyday during the holidays. You will burn off those stress hormones and release some endorphins which will help to curb emotional overeating. You will also feel healthier and you will be more likely to eat mindfully and make healthy eating choices.
2) Mini-Retreats – Take some time for yourself. The amount of socialization at this time of the year, even for an extrovert, can be overwhelming. Take some time for yourself. Read a great book in front of a fire, take a bubble bath (with lavender!) or go to that yoga class that you were going to skip out on. Self-care is crucial. If you take care of your emotional health, you will be less likely to be triggered.
3) Arm yourself for the Stressors – Often we don’t recognize cravings as emotional overeating, but often cravings are just that. Regardless of our weight, if we feel a compulsion to eat instead of actual hunger, then there is likely an undesirable emotion underneath that craving or outright binging.
During the holidays specific situations and interactions with certain individuals can be huge triggers. If there is a certain relative or acquaintance who you know you can’t avoid and rubs you the wrong way, then at least bring awareness to that situation beforehand. If this person is normally rude or makes the more subtle passive-aggressive comments, then expect it, but prepare for it. Don’t let that person be the cause of your undoing at the dessert table.
Decide ahead of time how you will handle this person and how you will handle the difficult emotions that are triggered as a result of interacting with him or her. Instead of numbing your feelings with food, plan to go outside to get some air, step away with someone you trust or go into a quiet room (or bathroom) to meditate or to do some deep breathing.
Watch the trigger connections. Become aware of how a craving can suddenly develop from even the slightest of stress. Before you reach for the dessert or food, allow yourself 90 seconds to be fully present with the emotion; feel it in your body for a minimum of 90 seconds before reacting. This is the length of time it takes for an emotion to shift once it has been honestly acknowledged.
4) Get your ZZZZ’s – It is very easy to fall into the trap of staying up late and sleeping in when we were off our regular schedule. However, not enough rest, makes us feel anxious and depressed, not to mention irritable. Furthermore, lack of sleep causes blood sugar fluctuations which will trigger cravings for carbs–particularly the white, sugary kind. Of course you should go out and have fun, but when possible go to sleep at a reasonable hour. You will find yourself much more energetic and enthusiastic about the festivities after a good night’s sleep.
5) Eating for Some is like Smoking for Others – Food may simply offer you something to do in a new social situation when you are feeling awkward. It can also be a way to connect and bond. Decide ahead of time how else you could connect with others such as a great conversation, taking a walk to see the lights, singing Christmas carol or playing a board game. If you do feel awkward, try and find something else to make yourself feel relaxed besides eating, or at least choose to eat from the vegetable platter.
6) Admit your Restrictions – If you have been dieting for the last several weeks or months for any reason, especially a restrictive diet, you are much more prone to fall into binge eating during the holidays. There is a reason why 95% of people who diet eventually fail and gain more weight. Each of us only has a limited amount of willpower. Psychologists discovered that while some individuals may have slightly more—willpower is never the factor that sustains a diet or any goal. The individuals who are able to stick with a diet or climb that mountain are the ones who have established or developed skill power.
Once our willpower naturally diminishes, out come our rationalizations and justifications about why we deserve a treat—or ten. In a sense, the reasons are justified. You probably have been so restrictive with your dieting that by this point your inner child or soul just won’t tolerate another moment. Food and eating is a body-mind-spirit experience. Rigid eating will not be tolerated for long and in time your inner child will make up for the way you have been depriving yourself. When we’e in the ‘just-one-more-bite-just-one-more-meal-just-one-more-day’ mode, we often don’t see the point in starting over yet. We feel like we have already thrown in the towel and why stop now. Don’t give yourself permission to re-start tomorrow or next week. Eat in moderation, savour, be patient and loving with yourself, but re-start every minute if you must.
If you have been restricting, perhaps your best move right now to avoid an “excuse” to binge during the holidays is to begin mindfully eating small portions of food that you have been denying yourself. Finding healthier substitutes is also a great strategy. Instead of depriving yourself, nourish body, mind and spirit with food that is healthy and tastes great.