Michael Mantell by Michael Mantell

While we all look forward to the holidays, many of us may also secretly (or not so secretly) dread it as well. After all, it can be hard to resist the countless seductive "triggers" at holiday parties and gatherings that, if you’re not careful, can add pounds to your waistline. But should we really be blaming those triggers? Is it possible to not merely survive the holidays, but thrive? The answer is yes.

What's Food Got to Do With It?

holiday eating

Yes, we have biological hunger pangs and hormonally influenced cravings, and we see and smell delicious, home-cooked food and respond to those crafty ads on TV and in magazines.  We even recall warm memories and think of tasty meals from holidays past and react to emotions of loneliness, anxiety, and sadness by, you guessed it, eating more. As if these four triggers aren't enough, a fifth prompt to which we surrender is attending social gatherings with people who are munching away and where well-intentioned friends and family continuously offer us food.

Typically, the average person gains about a pound during the holidays, and those who are already overweight tend to gain even more weight. The problem is that once the holidays are over, we spend the rest of the year trying to take this weight off—throwing a serious wrench in our fitness progress.  

But it's not those well-documented triggers that cause or make us gain the weight—it's the way we automatically think about these triggers, the erroneous self-talk we engage in about food, ourselves and our lives, and the lack of proper planning that create the big obstacles to enjoying "the happiest time of the year."

Healthy Thoughts, Healthy Eating

Here are just a few irrational thoughts that will more than likely lead to hopelessly giving up and feeling guilty in January.

  • Confusing hunger with a desire to eat
  • Having a low tolerance for cravings
  • Desiring the feeling of "being full"
  • Fooling yourself about how much you actually eat
  • Comforting your feelings with food
  • Feeling helpless when you gain weight
  • Focusing on how unfair it is that others can eat and you can't

Sound familiar? It's important to keep in mind that what's stressful around the holidays is completely and only what you THINK, not the actual events—present or past. Those are just events, but thinking about them differently makes them more (or less) stressful.  Stress derives from your thoughts, not from an event. For example, focusing on the past or future, training your sights on your weaknesses and demanding perfection. Catch, check and change those types of thoughts. I teach the prompt THINK to help clients measure the validity and helpfulness of their thoughts to know whether they need replacing.  

  • Is my Thought true?
  • Is it Helpful?
  • Does my thought Inspire me?
  • Is it Necessary for me to think this?
  • Am I being Kind to myself?

Create a list of your internal motivations to thrive, not just survive, your holiday food festivities. These might be "to get healthier," "like yourself more," "feel more in control," or "feel more comfortable around people." Externally, you might think that you "just don't want to be bugged by your doctor anymore" about your weight and eating habits, or simply "want to look great in that dress or suit you purchased for holiday parties."  

Identify the advantages to healthy eating and being physically active during the holidays.  

Write out a list of commitments you will actually make during this period, such as, "I'll make the following specific changes at home and at work: _______." Or, "When I feel a craving, I'm going to _______." Or perhaps, "To make time for exercise, I'm going to ________."

Create healthy-thinking cards to carry with you whenever you go to a social gathering. These are rational responses to the erroneous beliefs you identify within yourself. Typical erroneous beliefs and rational responses include, "I don't want to have to eat differently than others at the dinner, but what the heck? It's worth it to get fitter and healthier." And "I can either eat everything from the buffet table, or I can stay fit and healthy. I can't have it both ways."

Learning to get back on track after a lapse is an important part of the normal holiday party and dinner experience. We all make mistakes. Learning to say, "Oh well," instead of, "I've completely blown it and I'm a failure,' will make a tremendous difference in helping you deal with discouragement.

Finally, remaining mindful throughout the holidays is such an important building block to success, because it can boost your concentration, improve your inner resilience, turbo-charge your mental strength and willpower and even help with physical problems—all of which are necessary for enjoying, instead of dreading, social food-based gatherings. It takes just 10 minutes to focus on the absolute present. Notice what's going on inside of yourself and in your immediate surroundings, and accept what is, instead of judging or trying to change anything.

Happy Holidays!

Need some additional strategies? Check out these 10 Health Tips for Surviving the Holidays!