It’s hard to believe, but the annual season of feasting and overindulging is rapidly approaching. This seemingly endless trick of temptation starts with Halloween candy and continues with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s festivities.
Statistics for how much weight Americans tend to gain during this end-of-the-year smorgasbord vary from 1 to 10 pounds. Needless to say, this is a tough time for anyone trying to eat healthfully. But it’s more than just overeating, because exercise becomes collateral damage, as well. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, most Americans (60 percent) do not engage in vigorous, leisure-time physical activity. Add in the time demands of the holidays and the urge to stay inside because of the weather, and you have a recipe for even more inactivity.
With all this working against us, how can we keep from overeating and under-exercising during this season of gluttony? It begins with understanding. A variety of factors contribute to the difficulty.
Food-focused celebrations. The holidays bring special occasions, which bring parties, which increase the availability and quantity of social, raising the temptation to overindulge. The pressure to give in can be great, as we don’t want to put a damper on the merrymaking or disappoint loved ones who have toiled to present good treats. And the alcohol served at many social events can also destroy our resolve to eat in moderation.
Stress. As if there wasn’t enough stress in everyday life, holiday obligations and expectations add to the strain. There’s much to do and accomplish in a short period, and that extra work can be overwhelming. It can add to stress, and the stress can lead to overeating.
Exhaustion. The demands of fall/winter festivities can leave people feeling sluggish and sleep-deprived. And when people are tired, they’re more likely to overeat.
Emotional eating. Some people use food to soothe sadness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, or loss. Others simply use any celebration as an excuse to overindulge. Holiday marketing of food and consumerism contributes to the excess as well, and even people who have been trying to eat healthy throughout the year may give in. Comfort and nostalgia play roles, as well.
Cold weather. Some people crave high-calorie comfort food and drink when the mercury dips.
The same factors that contribute to overeating can also lead to physical inactivity. And, of course, overfull stomachs from all that holiday feasting, as well as stress, exhaustion, and cold weather, can dampen the best of workout intentions.
With all these obstacles to overcome, how can one avoid putting on those holiday pounds?
Be aware. Be conscious of what you eat and how much. Try to focus in on some healthier options when you are at that office holiday party. Honing in on two or three food options is often times a better solution than grazing on a little bit of everything. We tend to eat more when we have a lot of variety. Allow some treats for those special days, and then get back into your healthy routine the next day.
Plan in advance. Eat a little before you go to a holiday gathering; hunger can undo the best intentions. Showing up to those holiday smorgasbords on a semi-satisfied stomach will save you a lot of calories. Also, avoid sources of temptation whenever you can. If the office break room is filled with cookies, fruitcake, and eggnog, try not to go in there. Also, if you’re traveling for the holidays, pick up some healthy, portable snacks at the grocery store before you leave so you’re less likely to be tempted by unhealthy options.
Start your New Year’s resolution early. Jan. 1 is the quintessential “Day One of a new life.” It is the time when so many of us make that commitment to exercise more. Don’t wait. Make today that day. If you are focused on exercising throughout the holiday season, it should be a motivation not to undo all that hard work by binging at the neighbor’s holiday get-together.
Beware of liquid calories. These are the ones that are so often not on our radar screen. Liquid calories don’t contribute to your feelings of fullness, but they do contribute to your waistline. Fill up on water prior to your gathering.
Think about what really matters during this busy time of year, and plan accordingly. Figure out what you absolutely have to do, then let go of the rest, and find time to fit in walks and exercise wherever and however you can.
Try to maintain a healthy lifestyle both in and outside of the fall/winter feasting season. Constant weight gains and losses can be harmful to your health and your psyche. Keep in mind that celebrations are really about family and friends, not food. Balance, moderation, and variety are keys to better health.
Matthew Fourman, M.D., is medical director of Mercy Weight Management Center and Director of Bariatric Surgery, Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center.