It’s the most wonderful (and wonderfully stressful) time of the year! You may stress out around the holidays for many different reasons… family tension, financial strain, feeling pressured to create the perfect holiday season, decorating, gift shopping, mailing out all of the holiday cards on time, etc. But for many people the biggest source of holiday stress is food. From October to January it seems like indulgent treats are lurking around every corner leaving you feeling powerless against their temptation. Feel like you struggle to hold yourself back from diving into the candy bowls? Worried that once you start eating treats you won’t be able to make yourself stop? Feel extremely guilty after enjoying your favorite holiday desserts? All of this worry and anxiety can put a serious damper on your holiday cheer!
Sticking to healthy eating habits can be hard in general, so it doesn’t help when your efforts are met with fudge in the breakroom, cookie exchanges, and holiday parties every weekend. Is it possible to normalize our eating behaviors during the holidays? How can we feel more in control around food? And how can we indulge in our favorite holiday treats without sabotaging our health and our sanity?
Here are some of the most common challenges we face this time of year, and some ideas to help manage them.
Our environment is arguably the largest determining factor of our behaviors. There are certain environments we have control over (our home), but there are many that are out of our control (the office, coffee shops, stores, parties, etc). Designing a supportive environment that promotes healthy eating is one of the most important things you can do for self-care. Surround yourself with healthy options and you are more likely to make healthier choices! This is especially true around the holidays… if you know there are going to be loads of treats at work, then a company holiday party later that night, instead of treating the entire day as lost cause there are many other opportunities for you to take advantage of sneaking in some healthy foods!
First, find the opportunities in your day that you can control. You may not be able to control your co-workers bringing donuts into the office, but you can prepare a breakfast at home. You can pack your own lunch and keep healthy snacks at your desk. You are likely to feel less tempted by office treats if you are prepared with foods that help you function well and feel your best. Creating a supportive environment for yourself even when there are going to be situations out of your control is the best way to create balance in your day.
Creating structure and being prepared with readily available healthy foods helps to keep your eating habits more intentional instead of eating for convenience, out of desperation, or just because it’s there. If you’re really hungry, like stomach grumbling physical hunger, and you have a healthy snack at your desk you can pause and ask yourself... ‘do I really want to eat this sub-par piece of candy? Or would I rather eat the delicious snack I brought that would be more satisfying?” You might still choose the candy but hey, at least you had another option. That’s a perfect example of making an intentional choice vs. a compulsive one.
PRO TIP: Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy ingredients for meals and snacks, and don’t bring holiday leftovers home. Enjoy the party, or the holiday dinner, indulge in your favorite holiday treats, but keep them out of your healthy sanctuary. You’re less likely to mindlessly munch just because it’s there.
This time of year can feel a bit chaotic (understatement?). Your calendar may feel packed with events, baking cookies, shopping for presents, and you are left scrambling from one thing to the next. When you are going, going, going all day long it's easy to be so busy and distracted that you overlook how hungry you are. I hear clients say to me all the time ‘when I’m busy I don’t even think about food!”. This may seem great! When you're active, and engaged in living your life you don’t feel the same urges to graze on food throughout the day, or resort to eating because you’re bored. However, this could also mean that you don’t notice yourself getting hungry, resulting in low blood sugar because you’ve gone way too long without eating. Then BAM! It hits you and you’re hungry NOW! When you feel ravenous it becomes increasingly difficult to feel in control of your food choices, and you're more likely to eat quickly, which increases the likelihood of overeating. This reiterates the importance of the first topic, Environment. Creating a supportive environment for yourself and having healthy snacks with you prevents having to rely on convenience foods (which tend to be not so healthy).
The increased amount of stress during the holidays can also result in emotional eating… using food as a way to cope with uncomfortable feelings and emotions. We are over booked, over stressed, and surrounded by pleasurable food (sugar, fat, and salt!). When we are stressed we are more likely to use food for comfort. Food, especially sugar, makes us feel good by triggering the pleasure center in the brain. When we don't have any other method to cope with our feelings and emotions we are more likely to turn to sugar, and overeat in general. While it may seem impossible to find the time for some R&R I can’t stress its importance enough, even if it’s taking only 3 minutes to yourself. Tending to your physical and emotional needs has such an important impact on not only your sanity and well-being, but also your food choices!
Physical and emotional stress play an important role in our body's ability to control blood sugar, and has a significant impact on our decision making. Daily stressors initiate an increase in our stress hormones, our stress hormones increase our blood sugar causing insulin resistance, making it even more difficult to manage blood sugar levels. Read about the importance of managing blood sugar HERE. Our stress hormones also stimulate our appetite, making it more likely for us to overeat.
PRO TIP: Being organized, planning, and preparing for a jam-packed schedule is key. Prioritize sleep, physical movement, and daily quiet time to be still, disconnect, and reflect in order to get a handle on your stress during this busy time.
Do you have a food pusher in your life? A friend or family member who always makes you feel obligated to eat a certain way? Creating boundaries with food pushers can feel tricky because you don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. And the reality is that around the holidays people use food as a way to express their love for others. So, how can you go about honoring your own wants and needs without hurting anybody's feelings?
Before you can start to create boundaries you have to have clarity on your own wants and needs around food. This starts with discovering your true likes and dislikes. Which holiday foods do you actually enjoy? Have you ever really thought about it? Or, does the allure of rare holiday foods create the illusion of pleasure? A true like means you honestly enjoy the taste, texture, and experience of eating a certain food. A true like may also mean you like how a certain food makes you feel physically (energized, vibrant). True likes are satisfying, they “hit the spot”, and they meet or exceed your expectations. A true dislike means that you don’t actually enjoy how a food tastes (even if you have an emotional attachment to that food). Or, you don’t like how a food makes you feel physically (bloated, gassy, tired, foggy, hurts your stomach, etc). It is common to anticipate liking a food, building excitement around it, only to be left disappointed that it didn’t taste as good as you’d hoped. After you discover your true likes and dislikes then you can use that information to make a decision for yourself that feels more empowering. If you like it, eat it. If you don’t, say ‘no thank you’. For example, I love homemade fudge but could really do without store bought sugar cookies… they just don’t do it for me. So, I make room for the fudge and pass on the sugar cookies. I don’t feel obligated to eat both, but I also don’t feel the need to avoid them and deny myself the enjoyment of a special holiday treat.
No matter how much you love someone, it is not your responsibility to make them happy by eating something you don’t want, or by overeating… no matter how many hours they spent preparing their special holiday dish. Saying ‘no thank you’ may feel extremely challenging! But, in order to create healthy boundaries you mustn’t eat something just because you feel pressured to. The best thing to do is prepare a few responses you can use in a situation when you would like to respectfully decline a well-intentioned food pusher.
“Thank you. It looks so delicious, but I’m full”
“I’m pacing myself with all of these great options”
“I’m working on some health (or digestive issues) right now”
Or simply smile and say “No thank you”. Repeat as necessary. Sometimes short responses are best. You don’t have to explain yourself or make excuses.
PRO TIP: This year I challenge you to take inventory of your true holiday likes and dislikes. If you like it, eat it. If you don’t, respectfully decline. Be respectful of the feelings of others, but honor your needs by preparing some responses in advance.
Do you have a tendency to create food rules for yourself during the holidays? You’re either living it up now, eating all of the things (YOLO) with the intention of getting back on track in the new year. Or, you deem holiday foods off limits and put your blinders on trying to ignore their existence while you eat your steamed broccoli and plain chicken breast. This is a typical mindset around food… you’re either all in, or you’re all out. The only problem with this all-or-nothing mentality is that it fails us every. single. time. This is what we call yo-yo dieting, swinging from one extreme to the next… losing weight only to gain it all back (or even more). It leaves us feeling stuck, frustrated, defeated, and discouraged. The only way out of this mess is to embrace the gray area, which can feel scary for the chronic yo-yo dieter. The gray area is uncharted territory!
Research demonstrates that the more unique, rare, or special we perceive a food to be (like holiday foods!), the more our brain fixates on it. This fixation develops into intense cravings and desire, and when we finally allow ourselves to have “just one bite” we feel unable to control ourselves and devour the whole thing (maybe two). But what most people don’t realize is that this is your body’s natural instinct in response to restriction and deprivation. We sometimes forget that food is essential for our survival, and when our body senses that it’s not getting enough there are hardwired biological and psychological mechanisms that kick-in to fulfill your needs. Our brain and body just want to survive!
Embracing the gray area during the holidays means calling a truce with holiday food. Making holiday foods off limits only increases the allure, making the forbidden fruit effect feel even stronger. But, the more we are exposed to a food and the more we allow ourselves to eat it, the less we obsess about it. Embracing the gray area takes the pressure off of trying to live up to impossible standards, but also prevents out of control behavior (aka “falling off the wagon). You no longer battle between needing to “stay strong” and having a moment of “weakness”. You can balance your day with foods that support your health with a slice of your favorite pumpkin pie without feelings of guilt or shame.
PRO TIP: I challenge you to be brave and trek through the gray area. Remind yourself to keep the big picture in mind… a single meal, snack, or day doesn’t determine your overall health. What we do consistently matters most. If you put in the work to develop the skills, create the routines, and build the habits in order to make consistent choices that support your health, then there’s always wiggle room in a healthy diet for indulging in your favorite treats.
My hope for you is to fully enjoy all that this season has to offer! I hope that you find a way to feel joyful while caring for yourself the best that you can. Nourish your body with nutritious food, savor your favorite holiday treats, take time to rest and recharge your battery, and cherish quality time with loved ones.