How to Survive Holiday Eating
Updated: Apr 7
Ahh, the holidays! Time off of work, family, delicious feasts...or all the stress of travel, expenses, family tension overindulging and guilt. These last two especially can feel like a script that we get sucked into year after year despite our resolutions to change. But with patience, self-acceptance and some guidance we can change our holiday eating patterns. Here are some strategies to explore and experiment with. Yes, explore and experiment with, because we are all different and change doesn't happen overnight.
Work With Your Brain Not Against It
Have you ever noticed that when you are trying to avoid eating something your cravings for it are stronger? That's because your brain only knows what your attention is focused on. So, focusing on the behaviors you DO want to practice versus the behaviors (or foods) you want to avoid will make the holidays much more pleasant and your health endeavors much more successful. So, find out what you like and reframe what you don't. Make two lists: everything you love about the holidays and everything you hate. Here's an example:
Time off work
Seeing my family: esp. nieces and nephews
Those tired arguments/ tense conversations with family
Getting off my gym routine
Drinking too much- headaches, weight gain
Eating to the point of discomfort
Feeling guilty about all the unhealthy foods
Make space to truly savor everything on your list of loves. Even better, make a point of acknowledging them with a gratitude practice ahead of time. This will help you to leverage each component to support your health, and envisioning ahead of time will help you stick to your plan. For example, you can get up and run around with your nieces and nephews before dessert. When you put that piece of pumpkin pie on your plate, eat it slowly and enjoy each bite. Savor the opportunity to sleep in. Remember, sleep is one of the healthiest things you can offer your body; it's crucial to maintaining your health and losing/ maintaining body weight.
Next, find some strategies to deal with what you hate other than having second and third helpings. Set aside time for some meditation or deep-breathing. These practices will help reduce and manage stress. Talk to a friend or therapist and have a plan for how to deal with those you know are going to push your buttons. Plan a minimal or no-equipment workout. Do something, anything, to get up and get the blood flowing. Movement is important because it makes us feel good, not because it burns calories. You don't need a full hour plus of weight-lifting to reduce stress and get that healthy hormone cascade flowing. And, of course, set up a strategy for how and what you DO want to eat.
Prepare an Eating Strategy
There are two main ways you can go with holiday eating, I think they are equally healthy. This is where self-acceptance and the spirit of experimentation come in.
The first strategy is to go all in, enjoy, and just get back to your normal eating habits the next meal. One meal is not going to throw off you off-track (provided you're not eating foods you're allergic or sensitive to that could actually make you sick). The trick is that it needs to be one meal, not a week of leftovers. I like to make sure I have meals prepared and ready-to-go in the fridge or freezer for the day after a holiday. Check out this portion guide or work with a nutrition coach to determine what should go into your regular day-to-day meals.
Go for Moderation
Many of us don't do well with all-or-nothing. A little treat helps us from going off the deep end. To plan for this you can think about what healthy options you want to build your plate around first. Fill half of your plate with vegetables which are filling and full of vitamins and minerals. Include a serving each of protein and of healthy fats (like nuts, olives, or avocado, which all make great salad toppings) to make sure you stay full longer.
Holiday feasts are often full of starchy carb options: yams with marshmallows, stuffing, cornbread, potatoes, squash, and of course desserts. So much variety leads to eating more, but not necessarily enjoying more, so I think it's helpful to prioritize. Decide on one or two foods you enjoy most and skip the foods you don't. If you love pumpkin pie, save room for that and skip the boring store-bought dinner roll or your Aunt's dry stuffing.
Portions also matter. With Thanksgiving especially, we are encouraged to eat large quantities of food. But does eating more increase your enjoyment? Paying attention to how much you put on your plate, and even choosing a smaller plate if possible will help you enjoy the feast without feeling uncomfortable and guilty. Precision Nutrition has a handy portion guide to make serving your plate easy.
Practice HOW You Eat
Whether you indulge in all the holiday trimmings or prioritize healthy choices, how you eat is just as important as what you eat. To avoid that belt-popping discomfort, take your time. This strategy is valuable, but challenging. Humans are natural mimics, so if the people around you are eating fast, chances are you will follow suit. When we eat fast we don't give our brains a chance to register when we are full. What's more, we can only pay attention to one thing at a time, so it's really easy to engage in conversation and find your plate empty without having savored any of it.
To eat slowly try putting down your fork between bites, breathing deeply, and chewing your food thoroughly. Putting down your fork between bites helps you to be present in the conversation around you. Breathing deeply helps ensure your body is relaxed, which improves digestion. And when you chew thoroughly you not only slow down, but get to focus on the tastes and textures of your food. Treat this meal as the special feast it is, by giving the food the attention it deserves!
Set aside time to practice eating this way BEFORE you get to the holiday table. Grab a friend with similar goals for a slow meal together, or put on a guided eating meditation (the Headspace app has one, and many can be found online). I cannot stress enough that this practice takes time and patience. So give it a shot and give yourself the love and space to keep getting better at it.
Finally, avoid grazing if possible. Our guts do much better when we give them a chance to digest and process each meal separately. What's more, having little bites here and there makes it easy to eat way more than we are aware of. Grab a cup of ginger tea after you've finished your meal to keep your hands occupied and support digestion.
What You Drink is Important
When it comes to wine and other alcoholic beverages it's easy to go overboard. First, be sure to hydrate well throughout the day. Ideally most of your hydration should be between meal times. Too much water can dilute stomach acid, and being dehydrated can be confused for hunger, leading us to eat more. Start your day with a glass of water and a squeeze of lemon.
With wine especially, it's easy to drink a lot more than you realize when your glass is constantly being topped off. Instead, wait until you completely finish your glass before refilling. And for extra credit, have some water in between glasses of wine. This will not only keep your total calorie count down, but help prevent a hangover the next day.
Be Kind to Yourself
Remember this doesn't have to be your healthiest meal ever. Pick one or two strategies that feel doable and congratulate yourself on any progress you make. Your first few attempts might not go according to plan- and that's ok. Just look at why and you can either adjust your plan or give yourself more time to practice.
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