In Part I, we talked about the physical factors behind holiday weight gain, and discussed how to deal with physical issues.
Now let’s talk about the emotional factors behind holiday weight gain, and how to deal with them.
Holidays are Inherently Stressful
Whether it’s having to deal with crowds and long lines at the mall… finding the perfect gifts for the people on your gift list… struggling with how to pay for those gifts, or your holiday travel… almost every one of us has a good reason to stress over the holidays. Usually several. And food is a time-honored way to comfort ourselves. Despite the fact that fear of gaining weight over the holiday season is a major stressor in itself, and rightly so: most of us do not shed our winter weight come spring. Gaining a pound or 2 is hardly the end of the world, but if you don’t shed them, they accumulate—and the more overweight you are, the more you tend to gain over the holidays. What once could be easily resolved with a gentle adjustment of eating patterns now requires a longer-term approach.
Planning the Holidays
Probably the most important way to reduce holiday stress is planning. If you know you hate crowds, shop on-line with your local merchants. If finances are an issue, and they are for most of us, perhaps you can encourage your family to draw names. If you’ve got someone’s name, try to find out what they really want. Most people would rather have one gift they really enjoy that reminds them of you than a bunch of…stuff. And of course the greatest gifts you can give during the holidays are genuine kindness and real love.
Don’t Eat Your Emotions…
The single biggest trigger for over-eating is emotion. Of course we all eat emotionally from time to time: we celebrate with food and we comfort ourselves with food. But true emotional eating goes beyond your grandmother’s Hanukkah brisket or Christmas ham recipe triggering good memories.
Emotional eating is eating to satisfy needs that can’t be satisfied with foods. Emotional eating is using food as a primary emotional coping mechanism.
Be alert for the signs of emotional eating:
- Emotional hunger is usually very sudden; physical hunger is much slower and can often be put off for an hour or two, without making you feel frantic.
- Emotional hunger can only be satisfied by your own special “comfort foods”: physical hunger can be satisfied by any nutritious food.
- Emotional hunger often produces mindless eating, in which you eat without enjoying; satisfying physical hunger with good food, like roasted Brussels sprouts, is often enjoyable in itself.
- Emotional hunger is not satisfied by physical fullness or satiation: when you’re physically hungry, your body will tell you when it’s had enough.
- Emotional hunger is in your head and your heart, not your belly.
- Satisfying emotional hunger usually makes you feel guilty, ashamed or embarrassed: because deep down, you know you’ve avoided giving yourself what you’re truly hungry for.
The holidays are a trigger for painful emotions. We may realize that there are people in our lives who have deeply hurt us. Conversely, we may be mourning those who are no longer with us—or who are weaker and frailer than we remember them. We regret being able to see cherished family members only a few times a year. Gifts can be incredibly fraught.
Obviously, some of these issues cannot be resolved. Some wounds cannot even be addressed without causing serious family conflicts. (If you’re dealing with one of these, you may want to consult a therapist or other mental health professional.) Some grief cannot be healed: we are all mortal.
But this does not mean that you cannot acknowledge these issues and the pain and grief that they cause. If you are losing a parent to age, do things you will want to remember, even if they’re as simple as leafing through a book you have shared or taking a walk. If you find yourself overwhelmed with holiday planning because you’re the one who traditionally plans the holidays, share the responsibilities with other family members—then allow them to be creative.
Nurture and Comfort Yourself Every Day without Food
This means identifying your triggers for comfort eating.
For most of us, stress is a major cause of comfort eating. Until very recently, most forms of stress were physical, so stress triggers the production of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol causes us to crave high-sugar, high-fat foods for the energy we used to need to deal with stress. Even though most stress we now deal with is emotional, we still produce cortisol—which still makes us reach for energy-dense foods.
Exercise is the best possible way to deal with stress: it diverts the energy cortisol gives you into physical action, naturally fulfilling cortisol’s purpose. Make sure, though, that you deal with stress by exercising in a way you enjoy—rather than in a way you find stressful. If you feel like a long walk, rather than going to the gym, take a walk. A hot soak or a cup of tea are also excellent ways to release stress.
If you’re bored or feel empty this time of year, which can be common for those of us who are empty-nesters, divorced or widowed, do something you find interesting or fulfilling that doesn’t involve food. Join a knitting group or a book club. Volunteer. Make sure what you are doing, though, meets your needs: don’t do it because others think it’s a good idea.
Social situations are another reason many of us eat emotionally: it can seem easier to give in to someone’s demands that we eat rather say no. Politely say No anyway. You don’t need to offer an explanation. “No thank you” is enough. While a few people who insistently offer you food just want to share it with you, the fact is, trying to force-feed people is disrespectful. And if you’ve been successful in losing weight, you’d be amazed at how many people will try to sabotage you out of jealousy.
The Nitty Gritty of Dealing with Food Cravings
Because food isn’t just about nutrition, it’s about pleasure. Sometimes we need a sweet treat, no matter what we weigh.
Check In with Yourself
Ask yourself, Am I really hungry for this food? If you say No, I’m bored out of my skull, divert yourself with an interesting activity. If you say, Yes! I can’t remember the last time I had pecan pie and I love it! wait 5 minutes if you can, or just 1. Then enjoy whatever it is you’re craving. Eat slowly and savor every bite. Monitor what you’re feeling. When you feel full or stop enjoying what you’re eating, stop.
If Sugar is Your Particular Demon
Sugar can flip a switch in the brain, so that you find yourself saying, More, more, more. That’s not a failure of will or self-control, that’s a biochemical reaction in your brain. If you know that giving into your cravings will flip that switch in your brain, rather than satisfy you, you may want to try an alternative. Substitute a food you also really enjoy, but that is very hard for your body to metabolize into glucose: for example, a nice pasture-fed steak, not-well-trimmed for that touch of holiday decadence, and cooked until just perfectly medium rare or your very favorite cheese, toasted on some SWG bread. That way, you satisfy your craving for richness without flipping that switch in your brain.
Because eating is naturally sensual, it’s really important that you deal with your cravings in a way that you actually enjoy. Never, ever talk yourself into eating “diet” food, like an apple instead of pecan pie. Apples are great and we all love them—but they’re a bad substitute for pecan pie. All substituting an apple for pie will do is make you resent apples—and you’ll still eat the pie. Probably more than if you said, I really want some pecan pie—and enjoyed it for itself.
The harder you make it to get to something, the harder it is to eat it. If you keep chocolate in the back of your desk drawer, you will eventually eat it. But it will take longer than if you keep it out on your desk. If you keep fruit and pistachios in their shells out on your desk, you will also eat them—but it will take longer and you’ll feel more satisfied, longer. Make it easy for yourself to make the right choices.
It’s the holidays. Along with most other people, you’ll probably overeat at some point or another. Doing so once or twice is not the end of the world. Between now and the New Year, unless you’re at a party or feast, make a point of keeping to your normal, healthy eating pattern, continue to give your body the activity it needs, and every day, make a point of nurturing yourself in ways that do not involve food. If you do this, you will keep weight gain to a minimum and go into the New Year in good shape to meet your health goals.
If you’d like to get a head-start on meeting those goals, click here to watch our video to learn how—without sacrificing your favorite holiday treats.