Guest Column: Conquering holiday overeating

As the holiday season approaches, we think of celebrations with family and friends, and of food! Whether it is turkey and stuffing, ham, pumpkin pies, potato latkes or Christmas cookies, food is an integral part of the holiday season. Yet, for millions of Americans who worry about their weight, anticipating this myriad of delights creates great anxiety.

“How can I go to all of those parties and not overeat?” or “Why do I get through the whole evening without cheating and then find myself overeating at home?” are two of the common concerns expressed by dieters. While the ability to avoid fattening foods often leads to feelings of deprivation, indulging in these forbidden foods usually leads to feelings of guilt and weight gain, which interfere with the joy of the season. Here are five ways to enjoy eating this holiday season without worry:

1. End the deprivation—When you tell yourself that you can’t have certain foods because they are “too fattening,” you set yourself up to overeat those very foods. It is human nature to want what we can’t have. Eliminating “forbidden” foods to lose weight for the holidays frequently leads to overeating at parties and gatherings. One bite of something “off limits” is often enough to trigger the feeling that , “Now that I’ve broken my diet, I might as well have everything.” Or, you may control yourself at a party, only to feel you deserve a reward for your “good behavior” when you return home. Conversely, you may use the New Year as a time to resolve to diet. Therefore, there is a need to eat as much as possible prior to Jan. 1 in anticipation of the deprivation that will soon occur. By incorporating all types of foods into your diet throughout the year, you can avoid the overeating and holiday weight gain that results from deprivation.

2. Become an attuned eater—Attuned eaters use internal, physical cues to tell them when, what and how much to eat. This way of feeding yourself helps you to tune into hunger and satiation, rather than eating something just because it’s there. Becoming an attuned eater allows you to feel in charge of your eating when you are at holiday parties and celebrations.

There are three steps to attuned eating. First, learn to recognize when you are physically hungry. This requires tuning into your stomach and noticing how it feels. Next, identify what your body craves in response to your physical hunger. To match your hunger with the food that will satisfy you, have a variety of foods available and withhold judgments about what you are supposed to eat. When you are at a party, try to pick the food(s) that comes closest to what your body craves. Finally, pay attention to your fullness to know how much to eat. If you begin with a sensation of physical hunger, you will be able to identify a feeling of satisfaction when you have eaten enough. Honoring your hunger will keep you eating the right amount for your body and prevent weight gain as a result of to overeating.

3. Remind yourself that you can have it later —Who says you can’t make your sweet potato time any time you want? If you believe you cannot have a special holiday food for another whole year, you are likely to have it whether you are really in the mood for it or not. Instead, promise yourself that you can make turkey and mashed potatoes any time of year, and that special desserts can be baked or bought when you desire. Knowing that these foods can be available to you will reduce the need to eat something at a holiday celebration you don’t really want at that moment.

Consider asking for the recipe or a doggie bag when you are at a holiday event. This strategy stops the worry that if you don’t eat a special food immediately, such as the appetizing double chocolate caramel brownies that Grandma makes once a year, you won’t be able to have it again until next year. When appropriate, you can say to your hostess, “the brisket looks delicious, but I’m not hungry right now. Would it be OK if I took some of the leftovers home for later?” Or, “This cake is fabulous. Can I have your recipe?” People are usually flattered by your desire for their food, and knowing you can eat that food later decreases the need to overeat something you are not hungry for.

4. Avoid becoming too hungry—It can be tempting to “save up” your hunger for parties and special events. However, when you go without food for a long period of time, you become ravenous. At this stage of physical hunger, you are likely to eat anything and everything in sight, leading to that out-of-control feeling—and weight gain.

Instead, eat in accordance with your physical hunger throughout the day. If you want to ensure you have a good appetite when you arrive at an event, try to eat enough to take the edge off your hunger before you leave home, without becoming too full. A piece of fruit, some crackers or cookies, or a slice of cheese can help you to respond to your hunger so you do not walk into the party feeling desperate to eat. Then, you will truly be able to relax and to feed yourself exactly what you need!

5. Stay compassionate with yourself—Just about everyone overeats sometime, especially during the holiday season. If you yell at yourself for your transgression, you are likely to create anxiety, which fuels overeating and weight gain. You are also likely to fall into the trap of telling yourself that you might as well eat whatever you want right now because as of tomorrow—or next week or Jan. 1—you will have to restrict your eating. This attitude will increase your sense of guilt and feeling out of control, and guarantees you will eat more food than your body needs.

Instead, remain gentle with yourself. Attuned eaters notice when they feel too full, and then naturally wait for their next sign of physical hunger to eat again. Acknowledge the discomfort you feel from overeating, and promise yourself that you will do your best to wait for the next cue of internal hunger to let you know that it is time to eat again.

Focus on family and friends, rather than on food. Although food is an integral part of holiday events, the real purpose of getting together is to celebrate with people who are important to you. Eat for satiation and pleasure, and then turn your attention to connecting with others, rather than continuing to eat. By learning to feel in charge of your eating, you can break the diet/binge cycle and prevent weight gain from holiday overeating. Instead, as you greet the New Year, enjoy the sense of calm and hope that comes with this healthy attitude toward eating and weight.

Judith Matz, LCSW and Ellen Frankel, LCSW are sisters, therapists and co-authors of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care.

From the Nov. 29 – Dec. 5, 2006, issue

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