The holidays are upon us. And while you may have goals to maintain around nutrition and fitness, the very nature of this season is conspiring against you (at least it feels that way). Parties, the oh-so-thrilling prospect of travel, inflation, and, of course, family.
With the dramatic intro out of the way, let’s examine why the holiday season is such a trying time for folks trying to stay on track with their health and fitness goals. are especially difficult to navigate.
Why the Holidays Are Hard to Navigate
For many, December becomes the month of “I’ll get back on track Monday”. Except Monday is January, and the “weekend” has 31 days in it. People are faced with the stresses of work (quarter four goals), social engagements galore, a plethora of baked goods and alcohol, and long durations with family and extended family.
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For the fit-minded, those situations can make it feel hard to stick to whatever strength or aesthetic-related goal you have. Constant exposure to potentially stressful situations and food and alcohol is a recipe for over-eating, and stress-eating can become a cyclical behavior.
Stress has real impacts on one’s ability to manage weight. The negative effects on sleep quality and duration lead to increases in cortisol (a stress hormone) (1)(2), and accompanying fluctuations in hunger signaling hormones mean that we have increased hunger, lessened satiety, and hampered self-control. This is a pretty rough combination in any scenario, but when faced with the events that the holidays bring, it’s downright menacing. However, it doesn’t have to be. Here are five tips to avoid holiday stress eating.
- Eat Before the Event
- Maintain a Holiday Routine
- Exercise (When You Can)
- Limit Your Alcohol Intake
- Identify Your Emotions
This may sound ridiculous, but hunger is a significant cause of over-eating. You may hear or read advice to “save up calories” for the event you are going to. Oftentimes, however, that advice backfires, and, riddled with hunger, folks typically eat to excess when presented with calorie-dense, hyper-palatable foods.
For example, If you have a work event, it’s acceptable to eat a bit lighter during the day, knowing that you will likely have some drinks and high-calorie foods. Still, a straight-up fast in a “compromising” environment will leave you more vulnerable to decisions contrary to your goals.
While late-night munchies can result from boredom, they can also result from hunger. Logically, it makes sense that if you eat less, or not at all, during the day, then whatever calories you consume at a party will fit into your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Well, that’s not entirely true.
Overeating is mediated by satiety or feeling full. If you enter into a situation where there is a higher likelihood of overeating (due to environment, circumstance, etc), one way to combat this is to have a meal that falls high on the satiety index.
This generally means foods that are high in protein and fiber. (Lean meats and vegetables are common examples. A meal replacement shake isn’t a bad idea, either.) It’s a bit more complicated than simply being hungry (the satiety cascade moves from early sensory to late-stage absorption). Still, to limit overeating at holiday parties, the strategy doesn’t need to be. (3)
We don’t often have big periods off from our normal routine, and when we do, we may find ourselves engaging in behaviors that deviate from our goals and values. One way to mitigate this feeling of “free-for-all” is to create structure around your days.
As a business owner who works from home, I have had to create structure in my days for years now. It is an ever-evolving process, but some simple tactics can make it easier. You should enjoy your time off from work, so I don’t expect you to create a day that looks like work.
That said, my favorite tool for time management is also great for flexibility: time blocking. My work day might be composed of several “blocks” of time. 6 a.m.-8 a.m. gym time. 8 a.m.-9 a.m. shower and breakfast. 9 a.m.-noon work time.
You don’t have to structure your days in strict time blocks, but making time for yourself and then having blocks of time reserved for family activities and other responsibilities can set you up for success.
That key here is to create structured flexibility. Build in time for exercise, meals, meal prep…and fun. Also be willing to accept when best laid plans fall apart and be willing to move your blocks around or eliminate the ones that are lower priority.
Even the most dedicated fitness enthusiasts can neglect their exercise routine for one reason or another.
However, exercise is one of our best tools for stress management. Regular exercise can increase the production of endorphins, help manage our nervous system (which regulates our stress response), and can improve our mental health. (4)
It’s also an opportunity to ensure we do something for ourselves. In addition to our workouts, we can also use this time to double down on desired behaviors by engaging in activities with family and friends. Rather than just sitting around, take the opportunity to go for a walk or embark on a hike or play in the park.
While it is important not to equate exercise with calorie burn, it also doesn’t hurt to “put those calories to work”. There will be some high-calorie events over the holidays, and nothing fuels a workout better than an excess of carbs the night before (or some wickedly strong pre-workout).
That extra energy, the killer pump, and the satisfaction of getting after it can help to set your mood for the day and ensure that you are focused on the benefits that food gives you rather than beating yourself up for what you think is a dietary mis-step. Remember, when you fall off you can’t do anything about it but move forward.
Alcohol is a depressant and will temporarily relieve feelings of stress or discomfort, and those feelings are temporary. As the alcohol wears off, there is a potential that anxiety will actually worsen.
Combine that with the negative effects that alcohol has on sleep, and you are actually lessening your ability to manage stress. Then add in lower inhibitions which lead to us making unwise decisions around food. (5)
This isn’t to say you can’t and shouldn’t drink. But be mindful of the idea that drinking to ease your stress will likely lead to more stress due to “hang-xiety”, poor sleep, and the potential guilt you’ll feel after a series of impaired food choices.
A simple way to limit alcohol consumption without overly monitoring your evening is to use the 1:1 method. For every alcoholic beverage you have, make sure to have a non-alcoholic beverage before and after. This is a good way to not only feel “occupied” but also to allow the alcohol to metabolize, which can keep you from over-imbibing and potentially overeating as a result.
One last tip for alcohol consumption at parties: try to avoid the calorie bomb cocktails. The sugar-laden mixed drinks will have far more calories than a glass of wine or a simple highball with club soda. And yes, this definitely includes egg nog. As appetizing as a pitcher of warm, whipped egg yolks and liquor might sound, remember that it will come with far more calories than whiskey neat.
The thing about stress eating is it’s not just stress. Stress is often the catch-all term we use for “feelings”. And one of the best ways to mitigate stress is to get at the heart of it. According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, a leading neuroscientist and clinical psychologist focusing on the genesis of human emotion, we need to get “granular”. (6)
Getting granular simply means really working to identify our emotions in their most defined sense. If we know that we will be facing a particularly stressful situation due to a familial relationship, examining the feelings that are driving that stress can help us move it from a box that is overwhelming and nebulous to one that is manageable and describable. It helps us break down the problem.
For instance, if you know you will be stressed going home for the holidays, you may feel anxious. That anxiety might stem from the fact that your mother historically does everything last minute and is hours (sometimes days) late. This anxiety is a fear of holding everyone else up and missing out on meals. In reality, you always have a great time and have had more than a few Chinese takeout dinners on Christmas Eve that were more memorable than the turkey ever would’ve been. That was definitely in no way autobiographical.
One of the biggest emotions to pay attention to is shame. If you feel shame about your food choices or body image, it can bleed into all aspects of your life and make everything more difficult. So if you do happen to overeat one night or stress eat around your family, don’t dwell on it. Recognize it, understand why you did it (by identifying said emotions) and move on. You can get “back on track” with the next meal. You don’t have to wait until Monday.
The Holidays are about celebration. They are about family and friends and bringing a close to the year behind us while celebrating the year to come. These tips are meant to help you manage the stress around holidays and any stress that food may cause for you.
Don’t get so hung up on calories or macros of your weight loss goals that you lose sight of the reason you are celebrating. If you aren’t prepping for a bodybuilding contest or photo shoot, eating a few extra calories at Christmas dinner isn’t going to ruin your longer-term progress. But if one night turns into a few weeks, you are probably making things harder on yourself.
Enjoy the holidays and get back to doing the things that align with your values and goals the next day. You’ll never regret working in alignment with who you want to be.
About the Author
- Hirotsu C, Tufik S, Andersen ML. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Sci. 2015 Nov;8(3):143-52. doi: 10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002. Epub 2015 Sep 28. PMID: 26779321; PMCID: PMC4688585.
- Chao AM, Jastreboff AM, White MA, Grilo CM, Sinha R. Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017 Apr;25(4):713-720. doi: 10.1002/oby.21790. PMID: 28349668; PMCID: PMC5373497.
- Satiation, satiety and their effects on eating behaviour B. Benelam 22 May 2009 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-3010.2009.01753.x
- Harber VJ, Sutton JR. Endorphins and exercise. Sports Med. 1984 Mar-Apr;1(2):154-71. doi: 10.2165/00007256-198401020-00004. PMID: 6091217.
- Ebrahim IO, Shapiro CM, Williams AJ, Fenwick PB. Alcohol and sleep I: effects on normal sleep. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2013 Apr;37(4):539-49. doi: 10.1111/acer.12006. Epub 2013 Jan 24. PMID: 23347102.
- Kashdan, T. B., Barrett, L. F., & McKnight, P. E. (2015). Unpacking Emotion Differentiation: Transforming Unpleasant Experience by Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 10–16. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414550708
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