The winter holidays are here, and 2021 will be prove to be unique. As we continue to discover “life after COVID,” we gradually make our return to large gatherings of family and friends. And nowadays, wherever people gather – we find food. Lots of it. This is going to be even more pronounced this year, as we have spent the last 18 months cooking and baking and creating all kinds of new dishes while locked down with our bread machines and stand mixers.
This leads to one of the biggest challenges of the holidays – getting off track with your level of fitness and putting on extra weight. A recent survey explored the eating habits of 2,000 Americans and 48% of those admit they eaten so much during a holiday season that they had to loosen their pants – yikes! Let take a look at some fresh mental strategies to help you get to the other side New Year’s Eve without feeling guilty.
1. Don’t try to lose weight over the holidays
Here is the data – most adults tend to put on some weight during the holiday season. Even those who try to lose weight! Our societal cues tell us that this time of year is one for enjoyment, and creating a choice between fun and sacrifice is a losing proposition. Rather, define the choices you make around food as ones that you control, and then make them in a way that allows you feel good about them. For instance, don’t use terms like “I can’t resist” eating a favorite dish. Instead, you can say “I will allow myself to enjoy this, and just have less of something I don’t enjoy as much”. This builds autonomy, accountability, and minimizes a sense of deprivation.
2. Keep the exercise going
A lot will be going on this time of year, so some activities will have to be put on pause. Do not let exercise and movement be one of them. This will help mitigate weight gain and put you in a better position to get back on track in January. As mentioned, most people tend to add a little bit over the holidays, but studies show it is not as much as you think. The real problem is that the extra pounds stick around. By keeping other healthy activities going, you will be much more likely to lose those pounds once your dietary intake goes back to pre-holiday levels. Therefore, stick with your regular physical activity, specifically aerobic exercise.
We like to remind clients the intensity of exercise required to maintain endurance and burn calories is often much less than you think. As a rule of thumb, moderate intensity exercise, in the range 60% to 70% of your maximum intensity, performed for at least 150 minutes (about 2 and a half hours) over the course of a week is a good base for most adults. This level of effort is usually best for utilizing fats for energy and building endurance, although there are some variations between individuals. And you might find this level of exertion is not as uncomfortable as you may fear, and easier to sustain.
3. Be strategic
Busy lifestyles are often associated with less than healthy behaviors, and many adults endorse the fact that hectic schedules and stress affect their ability to eat healthy. The holidays only add to this problem. If there is one substantial behavioral change to make this holiday season, it’s to get a bit more organized. This can even be something to do as a family, to keep everyone on the same page. It could be as simple as spending 15 minutes one evening a week to preview the week ahead. And this can unlock the power of an especially useful mindfulness technique – visualization. If maintaining health is your goal, visualize yourself living that life in the week ahead. And by doing so you can reduce chaotic, impulsive eating and plan a bit better.
When at holiday gatherings, recognize that there will be great tasting but less than healthy foods like casseroles, cranberry sauce, pies, and eggnog but there will also be nutritious options as well. So, start with those – think salad, roasted veggies, freshly baked turkey and the cheese and fruit tray. Allow yourself to enjoy the varied food choices, but fill up on the lower calorie, fruit and vegetable choices first. For the less healthy goodies – enjoy, but just have a taste.
4. Drink more water
It sounds simple, but it works. A 2019 review of 6 clinical trials showed that replacing caloric beverages with water was effective strategy for weight reduction. At party time, you are more likely to have eggnog or the spiked hot coco, so the rest of the month, replace the juices, sports drinks, and sodas with water. Try cutting the typical amount of sugar you place in coffee in half, or use a natural low-calorie sweetener such as stevia or monk fruit. How much water is “enough”? Unbelievably there is no right answer, as it varies so much from person to person based on a multitude of factors. One recent study suggested somewhere around 1.8 L / 24-hour period, which breaks out to about 61 oz which – you guessed it – is about eight 8 oz glasses per day.
5. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t
Making the holidays a time of sacrifice does not work on multiple levels. Mindset plays a key role during this time of the year so rather than thinking you need to give up the pleasure of an unhealthy option, conceptualize the positive aspects of choosing a healthy – or at least a less unhealthy – behavior. Here is a way to put your inner monologue to work for you. Think of a phrase that describes your state of health in January 2022. Perhaps – “physically fit.” How does that make you feel? Confident? Peaceful? Whatever positive feeling you associate with that desired health outcome, place that at the center of your choices. For instance, = “Will I feel more confident if I have a second piece of Aunt Ginny’s pecan pie?” Or … “Will I feel more at peace if I do a “low impact” Peloton ride, or rewatch an episode of “Game of Thrones”’. This helps frame these small decisions as positive ones that you are doing for yourself. If you want to build healthy habits around food, WHAT you eat is only part of the big picture.
You should also look at HOW you eat, and WHO you are being while you eat. Honoring “fullness” can serve as a positive influence. Evidence shows that people will finish everything on their plate, even if they are full. How do we honor fullness? Create an inner fullness scale from 1-10, with 10 being stuffed and 1 as starving. Aim for a 7 on the fullness scale. This means satisfied but not stuffed. Practice during a few meals to prepare for the onslaught of holiday parties.
This is the time of year to enjoy family and friends, and take time to have fun. You can do that without becoming less healthy. Planning is critical this time of year on multiple levels, and investing 15 minutes at the beginning of your week to think about food and activity will help you to become less reactionary, and therefore not prone to impulsive decisions. The key is being mindful of the choices you make, and recognizing that you are always in control of them. You may gain a pound or two; that’s ok. If you stay present in your choices you will easily reverse it after the season ends. So slow down, savor the holidays, and head into the new year feeling confident about your overall sense of health and wellness.