Food for Thought

Creating healthy boundaries before you reach for holiday seconds

Illustration by Gloria Diianni

Some refer to the holiday season as the most wonderful time of the year. The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve can be filled with family, special memories and delicious food. Yet, that same holiday wonder may spark hurt feelings, hefty credit card bills, and high-fat leftovers. Suddenly, it becomes the most stressful time of the year.   

Despite the seasonal stress and sadness, it is possible to make the season more joy-ful, says Christine Wyrsch, RN, a certified health education specialist and manager of the Wentworth-Douglass Patient and Family Learning Center. By staying in touch with what you want your holiday to be and creating boundaries, you can keep your emotions in check. Wyrsch says she works with patients to manage their expectations and help them feel more in control.

“Around the holidays, there are a lot of have-tos. You have to go to grandma’s. You have to make a pie. But what would happen if you prioritized your have-to moments?” Wyrsch says.

It’s also important to know your audience and set your expectations accordingly. If Aunt Martha asks you about your relationship status and Uncle Fred baits you into a political debate every Thanksgiving, you may declare those subjects off-limits ahead of time.“You can say, let’s put this topic on hold and enjoy talking about grandma’s pie,” Wyrsch says.

Preventing seasonal spread

Speaking of pie, you may have trouble watching your waistline over the holidays. In addition to typical temptations, stress, alcohol and lack of sleep can all increase your desire to nosh. Whether you’re struggling to maintain your weight or need to lose weight for health reasons, you can stay on track, says Robert Catania, MD, of Southern New Hampshire Weight Management, a Nashua-based practice that specializes in obesity medicine. 

“The most important thing to remember — whether you’re going to a holiday event, office party or family party — is to prepare yourself in advance. One thing you can do is eat something healthy before you go. Ideally, you would choose a high-protein meal or fruit,” Catania says.

Once you get to the party, you can arrive prepared too. Catania suggests keeping a glass in your hand so that people can’t easily hand food to you. He also suggests staying out of the kitchen and keeping away from the buffet area.

Do you like to nibble while you cook? Party hosts aren’t immune to overindulging either. If you’re hosting a meal, it’s important to stay hydrated and keep rescue snacks on hand, says Megan DeSantis, PA-C, a physician assistant with Southern New Hampshire Weight Management.

“Avoid becoming over-hungry and keep an apple on the counter to chew while you’re working, or something you know will be your go-to snack,” she says. 

In some cases, avoiding certain people and food might be your best tactic. You can excuse yourself from the room and step outside for some fresh air when you get cornered by an overzealous relative or a tray of sweet treats, DeSantis says.

Why supercharged emotions can lead to empty calories

Eating high-carbohydrate foods releases dopamine and serotonin in the brain, says Catania, and over time we’ve learned that we can counter stress by eating. During the holidays, when faced with competing obligations and the pressure to please everyone, people often self-medicate with food, he says. 

Individuals who’ve lost a family member or friend may be vulnerable to increased loneliness and depression during the holidays, which makes it extra hard for them to stay on their diet plans, says Ellie Chuang, MD,  an endocrinologist with Southern New Hampshire Weight Management.

“This leads to eating as a coping mechanism, but it’s a short-lived pleasure,” she says. “It makes it harder to resist anything.”

At the same time, people who are actively trying to overcome obesity are often both castigated for being overweight and for turning down holiday food.

“Family members will often say, ‘Why are you being so serious? It’s a party, have fun!’ Or, ‘That’s all you’re going to eat? I made that just for you!’” Catania says.

Food coma: persisting in the aftermath 

You had a plan to resist second helpings, desserts and alcohol. Instead, you binged on all three. What can you do now?

“You don’t have to experience shame or guilt,” Catania says. “If you did, you did. Tomorrow is a new day.”

Catania tells his patients that it’s better to get back on track than to overly restrict yourself after a binge. That behavior, he says, can make you feel punished and make you want to rebel again. 

It’s important to be kind to yourself and understand that it takes a lifetime to build new habits — during the holiday season and throughout the year. Some people do experience slip-ups, and the best thing they can do is get back on their program, Chuang says.

After all, losing weight remains one of the most popular New Year’s resolutions. 

Categories: Health & Wellness