Last December I was tempted to ask one of my friends if she would mind electrifying the perimeter of the buffet table at her annual holiday brunch. As I saw it, the only thing that would keep me from noshing away on her famous baked brie would be a zap or two. My trouble is that while I love parties, it takes me a few minutes before I launch into conversation. My companion during the settling-in period? You guessed it -- the food.
Obviously, I'm not the only one with holiday eating issues. "There's just far more opportunity to eat then than there is the rest of the year, and it's socially sanctioned," says Edward Abramson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Lafayette, Calif., and author of Emotional Eating: What You Need to Know Before Starting Another Diet (Jossey-Bass, 1998).
Couple the abundance of food with overflowing to-do lists and other holiday stresses, and things can get messy. "Holidays trigger so much imbalance," says Sue Cummings, M.S., R.D., clinical program coordinator at Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center in Boston. "Everything is in excess, and dieters tend to be all or nothing." During the holidays, some of us drop our healthy ways altogether and take part in a six-week eating frenzy; others of us become so rigid, we refuse to indulge at all and wind up wearing a Grinch-like scowl. Here are 10 strategies for enjoying the season while avoiding the tensions, frustrations and temptations that can lead to weight gain.
1. Take a good look at the calendar. You'll notice that there are lots of regular days mixed in with the holidays. "It's a holiday -- not a holiweek or a holimonth," Cummings says. After every holiday, head straight back to your normal eating routine.
2. Try the 80/80 approach. Shooting for all healthy, all the time is a great way to fail. Allow yourself some leeway, and you're guaranteed to have more fun and feel better at the start of the new year. "Eighty percent of the time, do 80 percent of the things that are healthy for you," says Janet R. Laubgross, Ph.D., a Fairfax, Va.-based clinical psychologist specializing in weight management. During the other 20 percent, let go a little and enjoy a small portion of your favorite foods. "It's the thought of 'I blew it' that gets you in trouble," Cummings says.
"Don't turn a mistake into a catastrophe. If you do slip and violate your own rules, just take it in stride," agrees Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders in New Haven, Conn., and author of Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2003).
3. Choose your indulgences. Don't waste calories on so-so sweets or treats you aren't wild about or can get any time of year. But when it comes to Aunt Ida's Triple Threat Chocolate Fudge, dig in and enjoy. "Make every calorie count!" Brownell says. "Have the once-a-year pleasures."
4. Schedule time to stave off stress. Before packing your weeks with shopping, parties and errands, pencil in some downtime, exercise time or whatever time you need for yourself. Get stressed out, and you'll be too exhausted to make good food choices. All your favorite comfort foods will start to look even more tempting. "Protect your [down] time as if it's a meeting at work you can't miss," Cummings suggests.
5. Replace your evening trip to the refrigerator with a relaxation ritual. During the holidays, it's especially important to cultivate calm. "Putting the key in the door and going straight to the fridge is a habit [worth changing]," Cummings says. Instead, as soon as you get home, dim the lights, sit down in your cushiest chair and just be for a few minutes. For other dial-it-down techniques, Cummings recommends reading The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, M.D. (Avon, 2000).
6. Just say no. You may have to massage the truth to get out of parties or other events you don't want to attend, but it's worth it for the calories, time and stress you'll save. Can't skip an event altogether? Just drop by -- then scoot out! As for the endless invitations to eat, eat, eat, "recognize that what you put in your mouth is your business and nobody else's," psychologist Edward Abramson says. "The critical thing is to get your own thinking straight so that you know what's right for you."
If a flat out "no, thanks" to food doesn't work, try humor, Abramson says. "Something like 'Sorry, I'm allergic to that -- every time I eat it I break out in fat,' " should elicit a few understanding smiles. Also, with some people, the need to feed others is so ingrained that there's nothing you can do about it except smile, nod and pretend the food isn't on your plate. Your host will be so busy pushing food on other people that she probably won't notice you haven't touched what she served you.
7. Stay right where you are. Give yourself a present this year: Just try to maintain your weight through the holiday season. This is not the time to actively work on shedding pounds. "If you maintain your weight in November and December, then you've been successful," Janet Laubgross says.
8. Sit down -- and enjoy. Give everything you eat your complete attention. "Practice mindful eating," Cummings says. "If you eat something distractedly, it doesn't register." Even if you just want a single mini pumpkin pie, put it on a plate and sit down to eat it, Abramson says. Or if you're cooking for a holiday brunch, don't stand over the stove for taste tests. Again, use a plate and take a couple of minutes to savor what you're eating.
9. Avoid temptation traps. Toss leftovers and quickly re-gift food presents or pass them along to co-workers, a local shelter or a food bank. Your mother or Miss Manners might not approve, but we're making it official this year: It's OK to get rid of all holiday-food temptations.
10. Remember that exercise is not a license to eat. Feeling virtuous because you worked out before the party? Good for you. But if you think that gives you leeway to snarf down one of everything, you're fooling yourself. A 145-pound woman has to run a mile at 6 mph to burn 116 calories, but she can eat 116 calories in under a second, Brownell says.