Is it possible to stick to your health goals while still enjoying the holidays?
Don’t let the holidays completely derail your health journey. These simple tips and insights will help you prepare for an enjoyable and healthy holiday season.
The holidays can be such a magical time. The confluence of friends, family, tradition, food, gifts and celebration can be a heady mix. We have all found ourselves in February feeling like we were swept away by the holiday season. This can take the form of spending too much, drinking too much, eating too much, and sleeping and exercising too little, etc. I will focus on the nutritional aspect of staying on track during the holidays.
Food is a very complex topic. Food taps into so many different aspects of our lives; comfort, tradition, convenience and finances are some of the main ones. Talking about food involves considering the time and effort it takes to prepare and consume it, your skill level and confidence in the kitchen, the recipes you have inherited from your family or cultural heritage as well as the one of the deepest rewards of food – comfort. Food makes us feel good, connected, and satisfied. Plus, food (and of course alcohol) can be an indulgence that truly brings joy. But, as with so much in life, we must strive for balance.
Working with people gives me a deep appreciation for human psychology. If we restrict ourselves too much, we usually reach a point where we swing to the opposite extreme. Like a stretched rubber band, eventually it will snap back in the other direction. Many of us get into a destructive cycle of restrictive eating, dieting, exercising and/or abstaining. Eventually will power wears thin, and something breaks the camel’s back and we give up entirely. This “yo-yo” life is not a healthy way to live and does not advance our health goals. So what would a better path look like?
The first thing we must give ourselves as human beings is grace. There may be days when you over-indulge but that does not mean you have to over-indulge again tomorrow. When we approach the holiday season with some humility, we give ourselves space to do well and do a little less well. We cannot expect perfection, or the natural reaction will be futility and the complete abandonment of our goals. So, going into the holiday season with a little wiggle room is the first way to lessen the highs and lows of the yo-yo experience. Some fluctuation is normal, and there is no need to beat ourselves up for each imperfect day.
Related to the idea of grace is the idea of reality. Goals need to be overt (stated or written down), objective (measurable in some way) and realistic (reasonable to achieve). Coming back to these basic tenets will help you refine how you approach and effect change in your own life. If you tend to eat too many desserts during the holidays, you might set a goal of eating more fruit and fewer cookies.
A goal rooted in reality might look like this: “I will have one serving of fruit before eating any dessert.” An unrealistic goal would be more like: “I will not indulge in any pastries/cookies/cake at all this holiday season.” Set yourself up for success by making your goals achievable. Then make them overt: share them with a spouse, close friend or relative, write them in your journal, pray about it, etc. Sharing with someone you are close to creates an accountability system. Maybe your cousin has a holiday health goal as well, and you can support each other to stick to your resolve at family dinners. Perhaps sharing this process with a close friend will inspire him/her to take a similar approach.
The best outcomes result from knowing oneself. I am a numbers-driven person, so I set goals that are very concrete. “I will have one piece of honey ham at Christmas dinner.” Or “I will not exceed two glasses of wine at the holiday party.” This approach works with my type-A personality, but not everyone thinks like this. You must explore how best to frame your goals based on your personality and what motivates you.
I will provide some examples of ways to approach the holiday season, but I encourage you to be creative and work with your unique psyche to find the gentlest yet direct approach to establishing realistic goals for the holidays.
A quick side note: I have learned from a close friend about working with people. Understanding motivation and sparking change is easier and more successful with a greater understanding of oneself. A great place to start is by completing some simple psychology quizzes. Meyers-Briggs is a good one as is The Four Tendencies. Spend some time understanding what motivates you, and you will form better goals that work with your personality instead of against it.
Now, let’s get into some brass tacks of approaching the holiday season. First off, think ahead. You know what the holidays are like: treats at work, gifts from friends, holiday parties, holiday dinners, etc. So much in life can benefit from planning ahead. If you walk into work hungry and there is a plate of homemade Christmas cookies in the break room, your will power cannot withstand the temptation. So, bring snacks with you to work because if you are not hungry, you will be better able to resist unexpected treats.
One of the things I do during the holidays is politely decline store-bought goodies. That way, if someone brings in homemade treats, I can indulge without completely throwing off my nutrition goals. Think about where you tend to indulge the most and create a contingency plan for that situation.
Bring a healthier version of your favorite dish/drink to parties. I love my in-laws, but their holiday meals look different from what I had been used to growing up with. Their Italian heritage means lots of pasta and loads of carbs. Carbs are my downfall. So at every family event, I bring a vegetable main dish and a vegetable appetizer. Everybody enjoys what I bring, and my plate ends up being more balanced because I make sure that what I need is supplied. You may consider bringing a lower calorie beer, seltzer, or wine. My contribution can also come in the form of desserts made with gluten-free flour, alternative sugars, or made in smaller portions. One of my favorite things to do is make bite-sized cookies so I can eat just one and still feel good.
If Christmas dinner is meat-heavy, consider bringing some lentil soup that will be healthy and delicious, while providing a plant-based protein. If you are avoiding pork, bring a chicken or a turkey main dish. Think ahead about what will help you stick to your healthy eating goals during the holidays.
Savor what you eat and balance your plate. My basic approach to eating (all year round) is that half my plate consists of vegetables. Start out with vegetable appetizers, a salad and veggie main dishes, then add the other good stuff to your plate. Vegetables are nutrient-dense and high in fiber. This means that your stomach fills up faster with fewer calories, and you will feel satiated more quickly. It also leaves less room for meat, fried foods, and desserts. Make sure you are eating mindfully. If you enjoy each bite, you are less likely to go back for more. When we eat slowly, our bodies have time to realize that we are full. It can take about 20 minutes for the stomach to communicate satiety to the brain.
Finally, plan your physical activity. We all get busy during the holidays so you may not exercise as much as during the rest of the year. Make sure you are getting some physical activity at this time. I write it into my planner so I make sure to prioritize staying active. This is also part of how I balance out all the delicious savory, sugary, indulgent foods that we are tempted by during this season.
Life is about staying in balance. So, if I increase my calorie consumption, I should match it with increased physical activity. Staying active is also a great stress-reliever. I get 30-60 minutes of “me time” where I watch a show, read a book, or listen to a podcast. The holidays can bring up stressful family dynamics, and exercise is a great way to release some of that tension.
In conclusion, the most important first step in staying in control at holiday time is knowing yourself and being gentle with yourself. Set reasonable goals with clear objectives and share them with others. Think ahead about the holiday season and plan to avoid your toughest temptations. Bring along healthy dishes, desserts, and drinks so you always have an option that will not make you feel guilty. Savor indulgent foods and balance them out with fruits and vegetables. Remember that we are all human; we make mistakes and fall off our healthy path from time to time. Treat yourself with compassion when this happens, and you will find that you can get back on track more quickly with minimal self-recrimination. You will quickly realize that it is possible to enjoy the holiday season and still stay on track. Bon appetit!