As if managing the usual juggle of working, meeting family obligations, eating a healthy diet, and squeezing regular runs into day-to-day life wasn't hard enough, the holiday season brings with it a dizzying array of other challenges: parties, baking, enormous holiday meals, travel, shopping and lots of sweets around every corner. All the festivities can create a recipe for a total nutritional disaster. But it doesn't have to. Armed with these tips, you can survive the holidays without having a cookie meltdown at the eleventh hour. Here's how.
Tip #1: Set a Realistic Goal
Be honest with yourself: Now is not the time to try to lose weight. Instead set a goal to maintain your current fitness level and body weight--and your peace of mind. Write down your goals and create an action plan for the week. Just as you would prioritize a social event, plan in time to take care of yourself--whether it's to exercise, pack a healthy snack to eat while shopping at the mall, or prepare a satisfying well-balanced dinner.
Tip #2: Indulge Frequently, and in Moderation
The question is not whether to eat holiday treats at all, it is how much we should eat. An attempt to avoid all sweets is a battle against biology. Accept it. We're hard-wired for taste. Mary Abbott Hess, R.D., writes in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, "Even singlecell protozoa in a petri dish will head straight for the sucrose (sugar) source." Some scientists think sweet tastes cause our brains to release endorphins, those feel-good chemicals also released during exercise.
So how can you stay in control of this attraction to sugar? Don't deprive yourself, or you may fall into the "last supper" trap, as described by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole in the book Intuitive Eating. You fit into this all-too-familiar trap if you find yourself consuming an entire plate of macaroons at a party and think, "It's ok, I just won't eat anything tomorrow." The problem with the last supper mentality is it sets you up for a continuing cycle of deprivation and overeating. Instead, sprinkle a few rewards throughout your regular diet so you don't feel tempted to binge. If you have a few sweets on a regular basis, you may find you crave them less and won't go nuts when you're presented with a holiday spread of desserts.
Tip #3: Eat like a Toddler
No, I don't mean you should smear sweet potato casserole on the wall, to your host's disbelief. Rather, learn to understand what your body really needs. Researcher Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., and her colleagues reported in 2000 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that three-year old children are able to eat just enough of their meal to fill them up, despite being offered larger portions. That valuable ability to self-regulate can wane with age and external influences. But a large body of research shows that as adults we still have an innate sense of knowing how much food we need, if we take the time to pay attention.
Do yourself a favor and check in with how your body is feeling before, during and after eating to allow that natural perception to kick in. Focus on chewing slowly and thoroughly and enjoying each bite. Before you get seconds wait awhile: It can take up to 20 minutes for your body to experience a sense of fullness. Notice your energy level and how your stomach feels (rather than what your taste buds want) before you reload your plate. Your body knows how to do this, it just takes some practice to learn to listen.