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).