Self Improvement — 23 December 2007
How to avoid overeating during the holidays

The holidays are meant for joy, family gathering, gifts, and celebration. They also entail indulging in the delicious traditional foods and drinks. For many, overeating is expected and later regretted. What can we do to curtail the damage?

There are several reasons why most people overeat during the holidays. First, food is always a part of a celebration and eating with family and friends is a double pleasure. We feed our body and soul at the same time.

Being surrounded by loved ones (and not so loved ones) evokes a variety of emotions. People cherish sharing good food as they connect with those they enjoy. Eating with others in a festive atmosphere is a unifying experience even with those whom we like less well. For a short while we may abandon any of our differences and capitalize on our commonality in pleasing our senses.

Drinking alcohol also stimulates the appetite and serves to whet our appetite as we alternate solids and liquids. Overeating and excessive drinking is sanctioned by the group as an acceptable part of joyous interpersonal bonding.

It is also a common habit for people to eat more when food is free. Research about buffet consumption found that people eat much more in buffets than they do at a sit down dinner.

The days and weeks prior to the holidays are very stressful times. Decisions about where and with whom to share the holidays, the preparations for guests, gift search, wrapping, addressing cards, cooking, hosting and spending money, are only a few of the many stress-evoking concerns. By the time people are together, partaking in good food and laughter appear to be the ‘reward point’ in the process of releasing tensions.

The holidays come during winter when it is cold and the days are short. Our need for warmth and soothing, and perhaps some biologically programmed food storing mechanism, still affect us even at times of plenty. Some people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), becoming sad and depressed during the less sunny days. People suffering from SAD and others, who feel less energetic in the winter, tend to eat more in this season. The holidays offer a community- supported opportunity to do so with others.

Some people are not that comfortable in groups. They feel uneasy about relating to many different personalities, are ill at ease with some customs or the social expectations of them. They may busy themselves with eating, so that they can be less available to conversations with others. Some dread the anticipated discord between some family members or the pressure to recite their past year’s accomplishments. These individuals may be inclined to soothe their discomfort with food and drinks.

Whatever the reasons for overeating, some simple tools can help us reduce the regrets and self-beating we do later after the scales quantify the damage done. Greg Feldman of Simmons College and colleagues studied a new concept of stress reduction, which has its roots in Eastern philosophy and is termed ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness, he explains, is about accepting the reality of a situation and paying attention to what needs to be done.

Holidays are always practically and socially challenging, yet can be happy and joyful with responsible choices.

• Make a decision about your intended behavior and follow through regardless of others. For example, decide what and how much you will eat or drink and honor your commitment to yourself. Politely decline others’ insistence on greater consumption of food or beverages.
• Hors D’oeuvres are notoriously high in fat and calories, they are served first when you may be hungry, are small and can be mindlessly consumed. Count your bites and refrain from tasting all of them.
• Select a plate of food no larger than you would normally eat at home. Overeating is never free- it comes with a price of future months of regret and unhappiness.
• Resist having second serving or additional drinks –they add calories and may make you uncomfortable and guilty.
• Select the most appealing desert and have a small portion. More is no tastier or healthier.
• Avoid using food as a way to bond or isolate from others. Select the company you prefer and enjoy their presence.
• Do not use food as a reward for hard work, stress or emotional discomfort. It will only increase your uneasiness.
• Staying true to your pre-planned self-care will help you respect yourself more, have no next day regrets and have greater fun during the holidays and beyond.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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