Learn how to avoid holidays triggers for binging while maximizing holiday fun.
Food and Festivities: The Joy and Dread of Holiday Get Togethers
From “potato latkes” to “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, the holidays are filled with food! This can be a wonderful thing, as many cultures have traditions that revolve around food, and these traditions make us feel united. This, however, brings dread for those of us struggling with our weight. While most of us are looking forward to these events, there is also uncertainty about what we should do when we feel both personal desire and familial pressure to partake in the merry-making around food. Between family pressure, our own desires to be jolly, and cold weather compelling us to stock up for the winter, how can we possibly resist?
The Reasons Why It’s Hard to Stick to our Goals during the Holidays
1. General Merry-Making
The first, and perhaps most obvious reason we eat, is because, well, it’s fun!
Most cultures have traditions that revolve around food during holidays, and these foods are generally indulgent.
We grow up as children looking forward to chocolates as well as other holiday favorites. Most cultures have traditions that revolve around food during holidays, and these foods are generally indulgent. For instance, just hearing our favorite holiday songs on the radio, you will hear references to food such as “Figgy Pudding” in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Eggnog” in “Grandma got Runover by a Reindeer”, and “Pumpkin Pie” in “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” “There’s No Place Like Home For The Holidays,” and “Sleigh Ride”.
These foods not only taste good, but give us a sense of comfort and warmth as we reminisce about holidays past. This, coupled with wanting to please those around us who may have cooked their holiday classic special “just for you,” can be hard to turn down. If you find that you are already fearing the pressure of eating over the holidays, it’s best to proactively plan now. For instance, if you feel like your food choices will upset someone in your family, you may want to discuss it with the person ahead of time or make a plan to partake but in smaller quantities. What is important isn’t whether you eat it or not, that you don’t base your decision on others if you know you will regret it later.
2. Family Stress
Let’s be honest - the holidays are not all fun and games. While we generally look forward to these get-togethers with family and friends, they also come with a lot of stress. As children, we are often on pins and needles awaiting presents, while as adults we may be on pins and needles awaiting that back-handed remark about our weight or drunken fight between relatives. This year may be particularly difficult, as tensions rise over differing political views or varying stances about social distancing. As noted by The Atlantic, holiday get-togethers are ripe for what Freud refers to as “The "the narcissism of the small difference.” Generally speaking, this means the closer and more alike we are to another person, the more we expect similarity, and the more these differences trigger us in a profound way.
With tensions rising and food and drink available in abundance, how can we possibly resist that urge? Well, it’s going to be difficult.
With tensions rising and food and drink available in abundance, how can we possibly resist that urge? Well, it’s going to be difficult. Before discussing specific strategies around food as listed below, let’s first address how to best handle dealing with opposing views. As written by my colleague Dr. Kimberly Fishbach, there are 5 major strategies to effectively deal with opposing views. These include finding common ground, keeping it personal, monitoring your body, maintaining reasonable expectations, and taking time to understand. Without even actively trying, you may find yourself less inclined to reach for that extra glass of wine if you keep these tactics in mind.
3. Cold Weather
Another reason that we pack on the pounds during the holiday season is simply that...it's cold. We generally recognize this urge in ourselves and we come up with different reasons we believe it to be true, but there are actually legitimate reasons that this is the case. In fact, it has been proposed that overeating in the winter months has an evolutionary component to it. It’s an ingrained mechanism we have acquired from our ancestors to help us survive in times of scarcity, much like how other animals store up fat in order to hibernate for the winter.
As the days get shorter, the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with positive mood and mitigator of depression, decreases.
According to Everyday Health, sunlight, or lack thereof, may also play a role in winter weight gain. As the days get shorter, the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with positive mood and mitigator of depression, decreases. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, increases serotonin levels. Based on this, researchers have suggested that people thus may crave carbohydrates as a way to improve mood, particularly in people with seasonal depression, who may have lower serotonin levels and mood because of reduced exposure to sunlight.
How to Let Your Heart (and Body) Be Light Over the Holidays
It’s about setting realistic expectations for yourself and how you feel about how you ate in reference to your own goals.
While there may be many reasons why people overindulge over the holidays, it’s important for both our mental and physical health to eat in a way that aligns with our best intentions. This is not to imply that you need to stick to the same principles you have chosen to put in place other times throughout the year, but that your eating should still be intentional. If you are choosing to eat your mother’s famous pumpkin pie or your favorite treat from your childhood, you should certainly go ahead and do so. If, on the other hand, you wake up the night after your celebration riddled with guilt because you consumed far more than you intended, instead of blaming yourself, you can use this as a cue to analyze your reasons and mindfully get back on track. In the end, it’s never really about the food. It’s about setting realistic expectations for yourself and how you feel about how you ate in reference to your own goals.
Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.