The Battle of the Holiday Bulge

Need help with that second helping?

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The holiday season is a time for gathering with family and friends, often with food and drink involved in some way. For people dealing with food issues--whether it's eating too much or eating too little--the holidays can be an especially stressful time of year. However, coping strategies can help individuals facing disordered eating enjoy themselves. 

Many of us kick off a new year weighing more than we did at the start of December. If you're already suffering the health consequences of carrying excess weight, the extra pound or two gained over the holidays can be detrimental.

"Weight gained during the holidays often comes from eating foods that are high in sugar and fat," says Joan Daniels, a registered dietitian affiliated with the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. "The good news is that you can still enjoy these special occasions as long as you use a bit of restraint and keep yourself from indulging too much,"

These tips can help people struggling with excess weight to enjoy the holiday season and maintain a balanced, healthful diet--all without weight gain.

Don't arrive at a party hungry. Eat a snack or light meal before you leave for the event. Choose foods high in protein, such as cottage cheese, nuts or chicken; they can help you eat less later since protein is long-burning fuel. Fiber-rich foods are another good choice for pre-party dining since they can help promote a sense of fullness for fewer calories.

Fasting ahead of time, skimping on or altogether skipping meals earlier in the day to have room for a big meal or planning extra trips to the buffet table often leads to overeating.

Do eat small portions. If you're attending a party with a buffet, scope out the offerings first before you even grab a plate. Knowing what your choices are before you start can help you keep your portions in check when you do make your way, plate in hand, down the line.

Don't rush when eating. If a person eats too fast, his or her stomach doesn't have time to register that it's full, which can lead to overeating and weight gain. Therefore, eat at a slower pace. Chew thoughtfully and thoroughly, and savor each bite because, let's face it, some dishes we only get to enjoy during the holidays. After all that waiting and anticipating, why gobble up Aunt Mary's pecan pie so fast you don't even taste it? Moreover, if you vacuum up that only-at-the-holidays treat without enjoying its flavor, you're more likely to eat too much.

Do eat for your own pleasure, not someone else's satisfaction. It's really tough, but resist the urge to eat more to satisfy a nagging or doting parent or other relative. Often we develop poor eating habits thanks to family issues and traditions, so family holiday gatherings can be a time for you to observe the unsaid rules about food in your family and perhaps better understand how they affect you.

To help minimize the guilt or pressure put on us by well-meaning family members or friends, practice saying, "No thanks" in a polite yet firm way. If your host is offended if you don't have a second helping or don't try everything she or he has prepared, that's not your problem. If that doesn't work, divert that attention with a compliment. For example, if a loved one asks if you tried his or her calorie-laden dessert specialty you know you shouldn't have, you can then reply, "No, but I just had one of your almond crescents, and it was absolutely divine. Would you mind sharing the recipe?"

Do offer to bring a low-calorie dish to holiday parties. A lot of people today have special dietary needs: low-sodium foods for people with blood pressure issues, low-cholesterol foods for people with high blood lipids, low-sugar foods for people with diabetes or gluten-free foods for people with gluten sensitivities. Preparing foods to accommodate all guests' needs can be exceedingly stressful, not to mention expensive. By offering to bring your own low-calorie dish, you'll not only be helping out the party's host, but you'll also relieve a little of your own anxiety because you'll know at least one healthful item will be available.

Do watch what you drink. Alcohol not only has a lot of "empty" calories, but it can also stimulate your appetite--which is exactly what you don't want happening. Even festive eggnogs, hot cocoa and other drinks made with syrups contain a high amount of calories. To avoid guzzling a huge load of calories, try water with a twist of lime, flavored, calorie-free waters, sparkling apple or grape juice, low-sodium vegetable juices or hot cider instead. Here's another alternative: Enjoy a glass of wine followed by a glass of water.

Don't skip exercise. Look for ways to incorporate some daily physical activity during the holidays. Enjoy a brisk walk, either outside or at the mall (and no, the walking you do while shopping doesn't count). Exercise can be a huge stress reliever.

Getting out for a walk with family or friends at a gathering also provides a great excuse to get away from the table and the temptation to keep eating after you've had enough. Furthermore, a little pos-tmeal walk aids digestion and can help you feel more lively after big holiday meals than just collapsing on the couch.

Do be realistic. Do not aim to lose weight during the holidays. Says Cynthia Bulik, Ph.D., director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program, "I advocate weight maintenance instead of weight loss during the holidays." She notes, "Trying to lose weight right now only adds stress and can set you up for failure." Instead, set a goal to maintain your present weight.

To help you maintain a sense of how you're doing with your weight maintenance, don't hide your scale for the holiday season. Your weight will fluctuate because of daily changes and retaining fluids, but by weighing yourself regularly, you'll be able to identify a negative trend and correct it, if necessary. Regular weigh-ins also save you from any shocking discoveries come January. 

The Emotional Overload of Holiday Eating

Many people equate the holidays with food, and a lot of us attach a great deal of social and personal value to what and how we eat, often through family rituals or attitudes. For many people, family gatherings are positive events, but for the 9 million adults and young people who have an eating disorder, the holidays, without proper planning, can be a nightmare.

Three out of four women in the U.S. have "disordered eating" behavior, and 10 percent of women have an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder. If emotional issues interfere with your ability to enjoy food, Bulik says that planning ahead can help you navigate the food minefields of the holidays.

Have a "wing man." Designated a trusted person--a spouse, a friend, a close relative--who can accompany you to holiday events to help run interference when things get tense. This person should know your triggers and can help distract you from temptations--or that person pushing your buttons. In these situations, your wing man can jump in and change the subject or assist you in some other way while you handle the stress.

Make up a code signal or phrase with your wing man before going to a party. If you start to feel overwhelmed, give your friend the signal so you can both step out and get some support from this person you trust.

Keep in touch with your support team. If necessary, keep the professionals and loved ones supporting you in your recovery on speed dial and call them at any time during or after a party. After all, talking relieves the pressure. Don't feel guilty about calling on them in your time of need: You're not overburdening them. They will undoubtedly have stories to share too.

Also, try your best not to skip any appointments with your treatment team. Staying in touch with people who can help you in your recovery is very important during this high-stress, food-filled time.

Lavish holiday spreads are not your enemy. Just as people struggling with excess weight should reconnoiter a buffet line, so too should people struggling with disordered eating. Before getting a plate, browse the spread and evaluate your options. Mindfully consider which foods you'll sample, what portion sizes you'll take and whether you feel comfortable trying a "feared food."

If a holiday event is potluck, then you're in luck. You can take a food you prepare that feels safe for you to eat. This way, you'll have at least one option.

Stick with your treatment meal plan. If your support team has helped you develop an eating plan or schedule, don't stray from it. That way, you won't arrive starving and more likely to fall back into old, unhealthful habits.

If you don't have a meal plan, the "HALT" acronym that's well-known among eating disorder professionals works for any situation. Don't let yourself get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired over the holidays, for these are common triggers of disordered eating.

Listen with your heart, not your head. Hear the happiness and caring in a person's tone when she or he tells you that you look "so much better." Don't let the eating disorder lead you to misinterpret those words in a way that deprives you of hearing that people really care about you.

Get real. People too often have a fantasy about how "perfect" the holidays are going to be. When family members fail to live up to unrealistic expectations, you might be tempted to restrict or overeat to feel better temporarily. Try to anticipate some of the possible emotional traps in advance so you can cope (and maybe even laugh) when you encounter them.

Above all, no matter what your reason for being particularly mindful of your eating attitudes and habits, the holiday season is a time for forgiveness. Therefore, forgive yourself if you have an eating slip.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 24, 2010
Last Updated:
April 30, 2013