Why holiday weight stress can actually create dysfunctional eating habits (and what to focus on instead)
Holiday weight gain stress is a real thing, and you’re certainly not alone if you feel it. The pressure to maintain (or even lose!) weight is amplified if you have a Winter trip planned, which many families do.
Unfortunately, with weight stress often comes extra mindless (or emotional) eating and drinking, which can cause even more stress, guilt, regret and…more eating and drinking. And when we deprive ourselves of foods that we love in fear of gaining weight, what often can happen is that eventually we over-indulge in those foods. What happens after that? Guilt, regret, deprivation, sometimes dysfunctional purging strategies (like over-exercising), and then… over-indulging again. I call this the deprivation cycle. And–like a hamster on a wheel–it tends to come back around again and again and again. Many people stay in this cycle for years and years–dieting, overeating, dieting, overeating… And the cycle can be passed on through generations too. If ready for a change, read on.
See, the more we worry about gaining weight over the holidays (or in general), and use unhealthy or disordered ways of preventing it, the more likely we will be to enter or stay in the deprivation cycle described above. The truth is, holiday weight gain only equals an average 1 lb! That’s right! One pound only.
If you’re ready to jump off of the weight stress hamster wheel, consider a different approach. Try to shift your mindset away from “must NOT gain weight” or “must lose 10 pounds before Mexico trip in January” to focusing on what your body is telling you, paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues, and truly savouring the food that you eat. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how this strategy benefits you in more ways than one 😉
Here are my top tips for mindful and conscious eating during the holidays (and beyond):
1. Become familiar with your “hunger scale”
Eating mindfully or intuitively means paying attention to your body and your hunger. A “hunger scale” is a great tool that can help you visualize your hunger on a scale from 1 to 5 (or 1 to 10 if you prefer). I first learned of the Hunger Scale from two Dietitians, Evelyn Tribole, RD and Elyse Resch, RD who wrote an amazing book entitled Intuitive Eating. A Must read for anyone wanting to ditch the diet mentality forever. They use a scale from 1 to 10, but I prefer a scale from 1 to 5.
At the lower end of the scale you may feel too hungry. This is the I’m-so-hungry-it-hurts category. You’re irritable and snappy and simply not yourself. Many people refer to this feeling as “hangry” versus hungry here. And I agree! At the top of the scale you feel too full. Uncomfortable. It’s not enjoyable to be here because you are so full it feels like you could be sick. This is where people often feel regret or guilt about eating past the point of comfort. What tends to happen if you regularly let yourself get to the bottom of the scale (too hungry), is that you inevitably end up at the top of the list when you do allow yourself to eat. What happens then? Guilt, regret, and often… a slow trip back down to the bottom of the scale. Many many adults shift between a 1 and a 5 on the hunger scale ALL of the time. They only recognize hunger at a 1 and fullness at a 5. It’s time to become familiar with the middle of the scale.
Where we should aim to be is directly in the middle – eating when you feel subtle hunger (you may start thinking about food, your energy might dip, or you might feel a slight empty feeling in your stomach), and finishing when slightly full (comfortable and satisfied, but not over-full). This takes time and patience. You’ll definitely shift beyond the confines of 2 and 4, and that’s ok. Don’t beat yourself up, and continue to pay attention to your body. If you tend to wait WAY too long in between eating times, begin by setting a timer to eat every 3 to 4 hours, to remind you to at least tune into your hunger scale.
2. Let yourself enjoy your favourite foods!
Let’s face it, the holiday’s come once a year. Which means, holiday food and parties with loved ones don’t happen every day! This time of year is filled with fun AND food. So relax and don’t deprive yourself of your can’t-live-without-holiday-favourites and don’t beat yourself up if you over-indulge. Research suggests that those who focus on the celebration of food, versus the guilt of over-consuming, are actually more successful in their weight-maintenance or weight-loss goals! During the holiday’s my family celebrates with these Chewy Triple Ginger White Chocolate Cookies! They are so yummy and are a holiday tradition that my kids look forward to every year!
3. Don’t skip meals in an effort to “save up”
If you’re thinking about “saving all your calories” for the turkey dinner, dessert, or the holiday potluck, stop right now. Skipping meals in lieu of more indulgent meals will not help you meet your goals. In fact, restricting intake will only lead to over-consumption later on, as well as guilt and stress… you get it. Instead, try to stay on track with your regular meals, listen to your body, and don’t “save up”.
4. Fit nutrition in where you can (aka: throw in a green smoothie)
You may be shocked to hear this from a dietitian, but not every meal needs to be nutritious. We are given multiple opportunities throughout the day to nourish our bodies. So, if you’re heading to a family brunch, try focusing on having maybe a lighter, more nutritious supper that night. Or include a veggie-based snack if you know that veggies likely won’t make an appearance at the potluck. This green smoothie is a family favourite hit in my household, and a go-to breakfast option if I know it’s going to be an more indulgent day.
5. Savour your meal and sloooow down
Eating too fast takes the enjoyment out of a meal, and also increases the likelihood of eating too much. You may have heard that you can slow yourself down by putting your utensils down in between bites. Yes – but this can feel silly to some. My advice would be to eat and enjoy your family and friends while you eat. Sit down at a party (if possible), cut your food with utensils, and chew, taste and savour each bite. But most importantly, share the experience with others! Laugh together and talk about the deliciousness of the food; pause to engage in conversation, and tune into your body periodically to check in on your hunger scale. This will help you slow down so that you can listen to your body and be mindful of fullness.
6. Use a smaller plate at parties
At parties where food tends to be richer and in greater quantities, I tend to go for the smaller plate. This allows me try a variety of foods in smaller quantities. And if I love a particular dish – I’m going back for seconds. And let’s face it, plates are huge these days! Using a smaller plate forces you to really think about whether you want to go back for more, as opposed to having the food right in front of you, which might prompt you to eat it regardless of what your body is telling you.
7. Drink a glass of water in between alcoholic beverages
I love a glass of wine. Or two–let’s be honest. But during a season of excess, too much alcohol can quickly cause too many non-nutritive calories to be consumed. A good ol’ gin and tonic or a glass of wine can be between 110-160 calories per drink. So, drinking water in between alcoholic beverages will not only keep you hydrated (and ward off a potential hang over the next day) but it will mean fewer empty calories consumed.
8. Honour your fullness and don’t be afraid to say “no”
This is a big one when it comes to mindful and intuitive eating. Being present and listening to your body will help you decide if you’re ready to say “yes or no”. If your body is satisfied with what foods you have consumed you can say “no, thank-you” to a second helping. It’s ok–people won’t be hurt! But if you are not feeling fully satisfied and would like to have another helping of a favourite food, then go for it and say “yes, please”. Honour your fullness and feel less guilty. You’re the boss of your body.
9. Set a healthy example for your kids. They’re watching you!
How we as parents talk about our bodies matters, because guess what – kids listen. If you say “I’m not eating any of the bread, I’m trying to watch my weight”, then a child may interpret this as “I ate the bread, should I be watching my weight?” Research shows us that restrictive (or dieting) eating behaviour can lead to over consumption (or bingeing) behaviour. So instead of commenting on what you’re not going to consume, keep the food conversation positive. For example, “I loved this dish… remind me to grab the recipe from you”, or “no, thank-you I’m full… but it was delicious”. Remember that mindfully indulging in your favourite foods allows your kids to know that all foods can fit, and that food is much more than just nourishment. It’s about love, togetherness, and holiday traditions!
Here are a few more of my posts about mindful eating and eating around the holidays: