The holiday season is here, and it wouldn’t be complete without lavish dinners, potlucks with friends, and festive happy hours. While everyone has their own methods, self-control often precedes the indulgence of holiday treats at these gatherings, manifesting as behaviors such as skipping meals or skimping on calories — only to throw all caution to the wind upon facing the table of desserts and hors-d’oeuvres.
I have been guilty of this, but after going through it one too many times, I’ve finally reached a point where I wonder: Why?
Being hungry just doesn’t feel good — neither does being overstuffed. You restrict food all day with the goal of eating whatever you want at the celebration, which makes you tired, cranky, and achy. All you think about all day is food. When you get to the party, all you think about there is food — what you’ll eat, how much you’ll eat, what everyone else is eating. Will there be enough for me? Should I get seconds? Then, when you inevitably overeat, you feel stuffed, bloated, and sleepy. The guilt sets in, and you wonder why you don’t have enough willpower. Maybe you over exercise or purposely under eat the next day, consequently spending another day thinking mostly about food.
While these attempts at self-control might seem like a good idea, they go against our innate biology. It’s not about a lack of willpower; it’s not about being strong enough to resist the foods we deem our guilty pleasures. As Marya Hornbacher puts so eloquently in her memoir, Wasted:
“You cannot trick your body. Your body, strange as it seems to we who are saturated with a doctrine of dualism, is actually attached to your brain. There is a very simple, inevitable thing that happens to a person who is dieting: When you are not eating enough, your thinking process changes. You begin to be obsessed with food. They’ve done study after study on this, and still we believe that if we cut back fat, sugar, calorie intake…everything will be the same…Nothing is the same. You want to talk about food all the time…You want to taste something all the time…you want things to taste intense. All normal approach to food is lost in your frantic search for an explosion of…flavor in your mouth, an attempt to make your mouth, if not your body, feel full.”Marya hornbacher, wasted
Do you notice this happening on those days when you try to trick yourself into eating less only to eat more? How much of your time is spent thinking about food? Two hours? Four hours? Eight? Do you want to spend that much time thinking about food?
You don’t have to.
The simple solution is not to show up hungry; if you don’t want to overeat at the party, then don’t undereat beforehand. Although it may be easier said than done, the following tips can help you put this into action.
- Eat every 3-5 hours. Whether it’s a meal or snack, don’t go too long without eating. We often crave very sugary or fatty foods in response to intense hunger.
- Balance your plate. Just like any other day, craft your plate at every meal to include at least half fruits and vegetables, a quarter protein, a quarter carbohydrate, and some form of a heart-healthy fat.
- Don’t be afraid to snack. Having a nutritious and filling snack 1-2 hours before a holiday gathering can help keep hunger at bay. To get the most bang for your buck, pair a fiber-rich carbohydrate with a protein and/or healthy fat. Good examples include a piece of fresh fruit with ¼ cup nuts, ½ cup Greek yogurt with ½ cup berries and a tablespoon of nut butter, 2 hard-boiled eggs with fresh vegetables or fruit, or ⅓ cup of trail mix
- Eat mindfully. Slow down. Savor your food by taking smaller bites, putting your utensil down in between bites, and chewing slowly. Taking more time to eat can not only help you enjoy your food but also help you notice your fullness before it reaches an uncomfortable point. (Find more mindful eating tips here).
- Enjoy the moment. Instead of thinking so much about food, be mindful and enjoy everything else the holidays have to offer. Focus on the wonderful conversation you had with your old friend, the laughs you shared with family playing charades, the beautiful decorations, or the comforting holiday music. Food is just one component of the holiday season; don’t give it all the power.
- Be thankful. Some people will go to bed hungry this holiday season because they don’t have the financial means to buy enough food, let alone put a holiday meal on the table. Some people are lonely and don’t have holiday gatherings to attend. Some people are managing medical conditions that keep them from indulging in their favorite holiday treats. Be grateful for the company and the food you will be enjoying this holiday season, if you are lucky enough to do so.
Most importantly, give yourself permission to eat, drink, and be merry this holiday season. If you work with your body, it will work with you.