How to Beat the Holiday Urge to Indulge

By Dace L. Trence, MD, FACE

Leftover turkey with stuffing, pecan pie, Christmas cookies and fruitcake — pass the sugar, fats and calories!!! It is difficult enough to make the healthy food choices we should every day, but come the celebrations and holidays at the end of the year and you might just feel doomed to failure. Why even try?

Despite the best of intentions, it is estimated that people put on an average of 5 pounds during the holidays. It is difficult to resist Aunt Betty’s green bean and cheese casserole, your mother’s Christmas macaroons and grandmother Elsa’s wonderful mashed potatoes made with real sour cream and butter. And if you do muster the courage to decline a portion, ouch! How to avoid offending the wonderful cooks? Especially your mother!

While the end of the year might not seem like the ideal time to re-energize your dieting plans, it is a great opportunity to take stock of your dietary and meal choices and have a plan in place to deal with the holidays. Short of declining every invitation to celebrate, instead staying home to minimize temptation, there are strategies that can be used to lessen the impact of the “urge to indulge.” Let’s review some tips:

  1. Make sure you’re not hungry before you leave for a social event or dinner. It may seem odd to eat before sitting down to a dinner, but being hungry can decrease your ability to limit portions, decline those second helpings and stay away from “just one more bite.”
  2. Scan buffet tables or what is being served for a meal. Then be choosy! You don’t need to eat everything or even taste every item. Make a mental note of what you will eat, and limit your choices to just three or four items. Pass up the cheese puffs, peanuts, chips and everyday available snacks. Focus your calorie choice on the special dishes you really want to taste, those that are the special holiday treats. And when you have reached your limit of items, think of having a calorie budget that you now have exhausted. Sparkling water with a little bit of lemon or lime juice can stretch that budget without adding unwanted calories.
  3. Focus on socializing away from the buffet table or making a point of engaging in conversation with your table companions between bites. This can turn attention away from eating, even if your dinner plate is somehow filled too full. Make socializing the focus of the holiday event rather than food.
  4. Taste, do not eat! Keep your portions in check. To keep calories under control, grab a few extra napkins and after taking a bite of an item, put the rest in a napkin and toss it in the trash. Who would dig around in the trash to retrieve the food item, no matter how good it tasted??? And remember your item budget, so no more sampling of the same food- try something else.
  5. Plan how much alcohol you will drink. Alcohol loosens your inhibitions and ability to limit food choices. Overindulging in alcohol contributes to taking in more calories than you planned. Avoid cocktails or mixed drinks as they typically have higher alcohol content than a glass of wine. And they also have calories from what is added to the alcohol. Tonic water with a little cranberry juice can be very festive and refreshing, even in a wine glass. And make sure you add plenty of ice!
  6. Avoid processed foods such as salami or cheese. Try vegetable and fruit selections instead. The portion sizes are typically already smaller, and the calorie count certainly is. Look for different dips and sauces for the fruits and vegetables and put those directly on your plate, not on the vegetables, to minimize excessive coating. The vegetable or fruit pieces can then be just rolled into the sauce – this will minimize the coating of often calorie-dense sauces, but as it takes time to pick up the sauce/dip, your fingers will be less available to pick up those nuts or chips that might catch your eye.
  7. Walk around the room during a party gathering, and try to stand more than sit, as standing burns more calories than sitting. If you must sit, make it a point to stand and circulate around the room every 15 minutes. While eating at a dinner table, try to fidget. Moving your legs frequently might be difficult to do without social disruption, but the less you just sit still, the better your calorie expenditure. And make it a point to go for a walk or use a stationary bike after the party or the next day. Check your favorite phone app (such as My Fitness Pal or Lose It!) to see what and how much physical activity would counterbalance your food intake. Better yet, if you can, check before your event how much exercise would be needed to burn your planned calorie intake. If you know that you need to bike 100 miles to burn off the calories from a slice of Aunt Jo’s special cheesecake, you might just be more motivated to insist on half a slice! Visualize exercising — this can be very motivating to be able to politely but firmly decline the entire slice.
  8. Do not wear loose clothing to the party or dinner. Something a little snug can be a deterrent to eating more than you should. Some find that wearing a belt can be an aid to making more limited food portion choices. Try wearing a special piece of jewelry — a wrist bracelet or big ring or dangling necklace — as a visible reminder to yourself to eat in moderation. Even a commonly available elastic wrist bracelet that you can pull on when you feel tempted to eat more than planned can be an effective way to divert your attention away from food. And perhaps write a personal message to yourself as a reminder on the bracelet, such as “You can do it!” Better yet, write it in a sparkly ink and add a few stars and snowflake designs — make it fun. It is the holiday season, after all!
  9. Practice saying, “No, thank you.” It’s more than okay to turn down invitations for events that would greatly test your ability to stay within your dietary plan. Many health-conscious people avoid cruises knowing that ignoring the buffets would be impossible — why not pass on an event that could undo all you have worked for the past year?? And it’s okay to tell a host you have enjoyed their hospitality and wonderful treats very much, but don’t want seconds.
  10. Finally, it is also okay to be creative (within reason). If Grandma Elsa simply can’t believe that you are full and insists that you have one more piece of her pecan pie (and we all know how difficult it is to say no to Grandma), you can blame your healthcare team. “My doctor says I can’t.” We can take the heat!