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De-Stress Holiday Eating!

Posted On November 23, 2016


You can enjoy the holidays and your favorite treats – without overeating and gaining weight

By EDNA COX RICE, RDN, CSG, LDN

The holidays are here again! So are more family get-togethers, and the food; more office parties, and the food; more shopping, and the food.  All of these extras, shopping, cooking, parties, traveling and socializing make for a very stressful time, and it’s easy to turn to food to relieve the anxiety associated with the holidays. Emotions tend to be in overdrive during this season. Using food as a comfort is the number one reason people gain weight during the holidays, more than any other time during the year. Which for many, means by January you’re feeling defeated and overwhelmed at the number on the scale. 

Often, the joy of preparing for the season is clouded by trying to meet expectations set by your family, following holiday traditions, and balancing home and work.  It’s not surprising that women especially tend to pack on a few pounds between Halloween, or the start of tailgating season for some, and the New Year.  We’re not only exposed to plates of cookies calling our name from across the room, Grandma’s famous pecan pie, and calorie-laden cocktails at every party, but we are also constantly being exposed to stress, a powerful emotional eating trigger.  The stress may make you feel powerless over those food cravings.  When the urge hits, it’s all you can think about until you satisfy your taste buds. Occasionally using food as a pick me up isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when eating becomes your primary way of coping then there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

No matter how good that holiday cookie may taste, stressful hunger cannot be filled with food.  Treats may satisfy an immediate need but in the long run, you end up feeling worse than you did before.  You may experience food remorse and feel guilty over not having made better choices.

How to De-Stress Holiday Eating   

Make a list and check it twice to see if your food choices are naughty or nice!  Keeping a food journal sounds like just one more thing to add to your already long, overextended to-do list.  But it makes a difference.  And it can help alleviate some of your stress during this season.  When you make better food choices you’ll feel better, have more energy, feel less stressed, and look better.  Self-monitoring your feelings and indulgences is an easy way to become aware of your behavioral patterns and emotional triggers, as well as the situations in which you tend to overeat.

Journaling helps you become aware of ways to handle and overcome the challenges you uncover when taking a couple of minutes daily to journal your food intake. You will see the results sooner than you think.  As you journal, ask yourself the following:   

  • Are you eating because you are feeling stressed or because you are actually hungry?
  • Are you uncomfortable in a certain holiday setting?
  • Are you rewarding yourself with food?
  • Are you eating mindlessly?
  • Are you mindful of your food choices and the amount you are consuming?
  • Are you eating because you don’t want to offend anyone?

By paying close attention to the triggers that cause you to overeat, you can control the urge to rely on foods as a stress reliever and manage your eating habits in a healthier way.

Foods as Stress Relievers

Food is the perfect comfort activity because it is so easy and its effects are immediate.  If you can swap the activity of reaching for a cookie or a second piece of pie for another comfort activity, you can train your brain to go elsewhere for comfort.  Quick and easy activities to try during the holidays:

  • Reach for the door and take a 10- minute walk, get some fresh air and sunshine to calm you down
  • Reach for a glass of sparkling water or “zero” calorie flavored water; add a lime or orange wedge to make it festive.  Most of us think we feel hungry, but we’re really thirsty.  So fill up on calorie free thirst quenchers first.
  • Reach for some inspiration, keep a list of motivational sayings handy to keep you on track.
  • Reach for your phone and call a friend―this helps you to keep in touch over the holidays and friends can keep you grounded.

Stock Up  Keep a supply of healthy comfort foods on hand and keep them easily accessible.  Some favorite seasonal comfort foods:

  • Pumpkin seeds—they’re low in calories, high in fiber, and loaded with zinc and omega-3 fats.  Zinc and the omega-3 fatty acids are natural antidepressants.
  • Keep a bowl of fresh fruit on the kitchen counter.
  • To satisfy your sweet tooth, dip sliced apples in caramel sauce – 2 tablespoons is only 100 calories.
  • Sprinkle cinnamon on apple slices.
  • Keep sliced celery or baby carrots on the top shelf in the fridge, so you can grab veggies and hummus for a nutritious high protein snack.
  • Keep calorie free mixers on hand.  If family or friends are drinking a cocktail, you can add a fruit wedge to a calorie free beverage and join the festivities.
  • Bring your own food to parties.  If you’re invited to a party where you know there will be a big spread of foods that you will want to indulge in, prepare a dish ahead of time that you can eat and you know it’s healthy.  Bring dark chocolate and eat a couple of squares of that healthful choice rather than other sugary desserts and treats.

One Final Tip  Be polite but stern in turning down offers of food, particularly from loved ones who tend to guilt you into eating more. You don’t need to eat to be polite; there are many other ways to show your love and gratitude than eating food when you're not hungry.  The holidays are meant to enjoy things you normally don’t get to partake in throughout the year, so if you do indulge, don’t panic.  Get back on schedule.  Get plenty of rest, lots of exercise, and don’t indulge the rest of the week.  Make a healthier lifestyle a goal by being aware of the food choices you make and the emotion that is attached to it. 

No matter the time of year and however busy life seems, let your wellness goals guide you to achieve a long and healthy life.  Cheers to a stress-free holiday season!

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