With the holidays upon us, we often gather together more, more meals, more parties and more food. And with all that often comes the internal struggle between our desire to celebrate with food and to exhibit some level of self-control. Several studies and researchers have looked into how much weight we gain during this season, and the lasting effects it can cause. Even if you do not gain weight, there can still be struggle over what strategies to employ if you are intentionally trying not to put on those extra Christmas pounds.
There are two main errors people tend to make when it comes to dieting and food restriction for health reasons. The first takes the form of labeling foods as “good” or “bad”. Now, it is certainly true that some foods may be better suited to meet certain goals you have. Foods have different nutrition profiles, the balance of macros and presence of things like vitamins and minerals, can make certain foods feel more satiating or not, but labeling foods as “bad” in particular will often cause us to feel restricted in our eating. When we experience restrictions, focusing on what we “can’t have” or even being afraid of that pumpkin pie can distort our perception of food. It can also lead us to want to rebel against those restraints, even if they are self-imposed. As people, we want to experience a sense of freedom and agency, we want to have control over our lives and not feel like something is compelling us to do or not do something. Often when we feel like we are being controlled by a certain plan or program we will eventually want to rebel and indulge by reaching out to taste the forbidden fruit (or fruitcake). When foods are bad, then we tend feel shamed when we eat them. This of course doesn’t alter our behaviors, but shame just drives them underground. So while we may enjoy the guilty pleasure in the moment, it comes with the consequences of shame afterwards that make us feel bad and doesn’t lead to change in the future. The point is that generally diets or plans that feel too restrictive often backfire. You may lose the weight you wanted to, but as many studies with diets show, they are not sustainable and so people often put that weight back on because they feel restrictive.
The second main error that people make is to make short-term goals without long-term foresight. This means that people are drawn to the 6, 8, or 12-week diet plans that promise you’ll be a slimmer, lighter you in just 2 months time. But similar to error #1, these diets are often not sustainable. Many people, who struggle with weight, just want something that works, and the thinking is, “I just want to get to X weight, then I’ll worry about staying there”. The trouble with this approach is, first, some diets are so restrictive that you lose not just fat during the dieting phase, but lean muscle mass tissue as well. When we lose muscle mass that tends to slow down our metabolism and “basal metabolic rate”. This means that when you come off the diet you need to maintain a lower calorie diet than before to maintain your weight. This can be hard for many and often leads to the rebound weight gain. The second issue with this is that while you may have the will power and discipline to stick to an 8-week diet plan, you haven’t developed the habits and practices needed to maintain a healthy nutrition program. Once the diet is over, many of us don’t know what is the best strategy for sustaining that weight loss long-term. Instead we go back to our old eating patterns, and inevitably gain the weight back.
So, how do we stick with a healthy food plan that doesn’t fall into these traps? I’ll make 2 suggestions for now. The first thing to do is some personal inventory and examine your relationship with food. This is often challenging, complicated, and uncomfortable. We all have a story regarding food, how we view it, why we eat what we eat, and more. In order to make lasting changes you first need to understand how you got to the place you are currently in with food. Most of us know when given the choice at a party, which is a healthier option, the apple or the apple pie. And that’s not to say you shouldn’t have the apple pie on occasion, but the point is that just knowing what to eat doesn’t mean we will make the choice that is best for us. Information alone isn’t a strong enough motivator to get us to make the healthy choice. Knowing might be half the battle, but it is only half of the battle. The other half consists of the stories, and patterns that influence what choice we make. Is food meeting other needs in your life? Are you feeling low and looking for a dopamine hit? Is shame part of your story with food? Are you part of a group that says certain foods are bad or off limits? The reality is we choose to eat what we do for lots of reasons and we all need to be clear on that in order to make the choices we want around food long-term.
The second proactive thing to do around healthier food choices is to keep asking “Why?” regarding food and our own health. If my goal is to lose 5 pounds the question is “why”? Because it sounded like a nice number? Why 5, why not 6 or 4? If your goal is I want to fit into that one outfit I used to be able to last year then ask why? Then go deeper, why is fitting into that outfit important to you? Why do I want what I want? Is that goal really in congruence with who I desire myself to be in the future or not? We have to get clear on the why behind the what. Along with that, even if you have an outcome goal in mind, say to lose 10 lbs. then you need to break that down into a more manageable, process goal. If the goal is to lose 10 lbs. then you could just starve yourself for a few weeks and get there, but that’s probably not what you really want. So look at your goal, and break that down into the process it will take for you to get there over time. This way, we start to focus more on the habits, and actions we can take to get there, rather than the destination itself.
The holidays are a great time for gathering together, friendship and family, but for many of us, it is also a time of internal conflict and struggle around personal boundaries and self-discipline. Set yourself up for success by avoiding these errors and being proactive about what you want and you’ll have a more satisfying holiday season in which you can be more fully present with those you are with and yourself.