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You’ve established good eating habits to help you stay healthy, lose weight or simply feel better. And then along come the holidays with their sugary treats, heavy meals and cargo of food-related emotions. Aunt Ellen’s cookies are a family tradition; Grandpa Ed will be offended if you don’t dig into his roast beef. And some part of you feels that you might be missing out on the joys of the season if you stick to your healthy habits.

By planning what to say and do beforehand, you can get through holiday food-fests with both your body and spirit intact.

How’s a healthy person supposed to cope? Jane Ogden, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Surrey in England and author of The Psychology of Eating, suggests combining flexibility and preparation. By being willing to give a little and by planning what to say and do beforehand, you can get through holiday food-fests with both your body and spirit intact.

Barriers to Overcome

  • Food bonding. Food and relationships are deeply connected, notes Ogden. “At the holidays, you’re often with people who mean a lot to you, and whom you don’t see all the time. As a result, you may be inclined to use food as a connecting point” — by eating anything your loved ones offer, or by eating with them, hungry or not.
  • Emotional baggage. The holidays have a way of bringing up old memories — some fond, some sad or stressful. Ogden notes that many people respond to these triggers by reaching for food.
  • It’s everywhere. From the office lounge to the overloaded banquet table, food is ubiquitous, multiplying your temptations.
  • The “favorite” factor. You may adore certain holiday foods that come around only once a year. Missing out on them may feel totally unfair.
  • Ritual pull. “Food is often an important part of both family and religious holiday rituals,” says Ogden, “and opting out of those rituals may be seen as disrespectful of those sacred traditions.”

How to Cope

  • Honor yourself. Decide beforehand that you’re going to eat in a way that pleases and serves you, “not in a way that meets the social or family expectations of others,” advises Ogden.
  • Prep your explanation. In principle, a simple no-thank-you should do. But if you expect to encounter resistance, practice an explanation that invites as little pushback as possible. Saying “I’m avoiding sugar right now” or “I’m gluten intolerant” may be more effective than saying you’re watching your weight, Ogden notes.
  • Relax rigid rules. “You might simply accept the fact that this is a special time of year with respect to food and relax your rules a little,” says Ogden. You could pick significant meals you wish to experience without your usual restrictions, for example, or add in some extra workouts to offset certain indulgences. By consciously adjusting your rules within certain boundaries, she says, “you avoid a less conscious ‘what-the-hell effect,’ where you say, ‘I’ve broken my rule, so I may as well go the whole way.’”
  • Eat mindfully. and enjoy! Pay careful, conscious attention to the taste and texture of all the food you eat over the holidays. When you eat with conscious awareness, you are less likely to overindulge and more likely to enjoy your food — and enjoying your food offers a host of digestive and metabolic benefits. (For more on the benefits of mindful eating, see “Eating for Pleasure”.)

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