It’s mid-December, and the holiday season is in full effect. Many of us are making plans to spend time with loved ones, whether via virtual dates or small family gatherings, and checking off shopping lists with the perfect gifts. Of course, holiday foods are everywhere. From hot apple cider and candy canes to chocolate gelt and grandma’s famous ham, each family has its traditions. Unfortunately, sometimes these seasonal treats come with a side of stress and mindless snacking on less-nutritious foods, leading to holiday weight gain.
This could be even more of an issue this year. “The uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic and fear of the virus, as well the need to continue with physical distancing and mask wearing is taking its toll on our society,” says Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.” “People are feeling the stress, and food is an easy distraction,” says Naidoo. Moreover, “many see eating healthy or making better food choices as an added stressor during the holidays.”
If that sounds familiar to you, the good news is you’re not alone. To mitigate seasonal diet stress, try employing these smart expert-approved strategies:
WRITE THINGS DOWN
Keeping a journal and tracking your wellness habits can be a huge help in noticing patterns and staying on track, says Piper Gibson, a holistic nutritionist. “We all think, ‘Oh, I can remember that,’ but our brain only picks out the highlights, and some of us can’t remember what we ate yesterday,” she says. “By writing things down, you avoid stressing out.” Try keeping a food log with an app like MyFitnessPal, where you can also track your workouts and hydration.
KEEP YOUR PORTIONS IN CHECK
“Holiday meals often involve large portions of food, so you need a strategy,” says Susan Bowerman, MS, RD. “Do your best to keep portions of rich food on the smaller side, and instead, load up on items that won’t break your calorie bank, like vegetables and green salads,” she recommends. One way to do that is with the Plate Diet, which focuses on filling half your plate with non-starchy fruits and veggies, dedicating 1/4 of your plate to protein and the remaining quarter to slow-digesting complex carbs. This strategy allows you to try almost everything while also paying more attention to exactly what you’re putting into your body.
MAKE TIME FOR MOVEMENT
You may not have the time to do your usual workout routine during the holidays, and that’s OK. Rather than get down on yourself about what you can’t do, focus on what you can, and make sure it’s something you enjoy. “I like the goal of just moving more often by walking as much as you can, whenever you can,” says Jaclyn London, RD. “Maybe it’s while you’re taking a phone call,” she says. By walking while you’re doing something else, you get lost in the activity, killing two birds with one stone. At the end of the day, exercise should always (and especially during stressful times) be something that makes you happy so you’re more likely to stick with it long term.
ASK YOURSELF: DO I REALLY WANT THIS?
When it comes to holiday treats, approaching them with the right attitude helps you eat mindfully with intention. “You want to change the way you respond to treats when you see them,” says Bowerman. “Rather than letting your impulses get the best of you, stop and ask yourself, ‘do I really want this?’” If you didn’t want it until you saw it or wouldn’t go out of your way to get it — you may not want to eat it. Give yourself a few minutes, and think about how you would feel if you had consumed the thing you wanted in the moment. Oftentimes, you may realize you didn’t want it at all.
KEEP YOUR HOME STOCKED WITH NUTRITIOUS EATS
You may not have control of everything once you leave your own home, but you can make smarter decisions about what’s in your kitchen. “If you find yourself prone to stress eating, take a look at what types of foods you generally reach for,” suggests London. “Are you loading up on partially-stale candies because they happen to be available?”
Your surroundings are the most important for that in-the-moment decision, so consider how you can stack the deck in your favor. Keep wholesome foods that are high in volume and low in calories (London recommends carrot sticks, frozen grapes, cherry tomatoes; air-popped popcorn, roasted chickpeas or edamame; or homemade veggie chips) readily accessible. “These can help as a starting spot for what to eat when you want something you can crunch, but that won’t make you feel too full. They provide an in-the-moment alternative that’s also nutritious,” she says.
DRINK MORE WATER
Hunger is often confused with thirst because these signals originate in the brain, says Dr. Naidoo. “A glass of water may help those stressful hunger pangs and cravings go away,” she adds. “Plus, it allows you to pause and allows for a moment of mindfulness.” Try jazzing up your water with fresh fruit, sipping on seltzer or keeping a fun water bottle around to remind yourself to sip more.
Drinking alcohol is often a big part of socializing over the holidays. However, alcohol can lower your inhibitions and increase your appetite, leading to overeating, especially when it comes to any sugar-rich holiday treats you may be surrounded by. If you drink too much before a big holiday meal, you’ll also be more likely to eat larger portions. The fix: Make sure you’re well-hydrated (sip on water between drinks) and aren’t drinking on an empty stomach. Try opting for a lower-calorie beverage, consider having a glass of water before enjoying another drink, and make sure to consume alcoholic drinks slowly and mindfully.
Research shows when you’re sleep-deprived, the hormones that signal when we’re full and hungry are negatively affected. You’re more likely to crave sugar-rich foods for a boost of quick energy and be prone to mindless snacking, which can lead to overeating and weight gain. Following a bedtime routine that includes time for unwinding (such as taking a hot bath or reading a good book) not only helps reduce stress, but it can also help prevent holiday weight gain.
Originally published December 2020
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