The holiday season brings with it heightened emotions and expectations — often accompanied by heightened readings on the scale.
There are more social gatherings and special foods that are usually rich in fat and sugar. There also can be higher stress levels, causing us to overconsume empty calories. And then there are the mind games we play with our waistlines, like the notion that we can take a furlough from good eating during the holidays.
“Somehow, eating at a party seems separate from your normal eating life,” said Traci Mann, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and author of “Secrets From the Eating Lab.”
On average, people gain one pound between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. But those who are already tipping the scale tend to gain more — at least 5 pounds, studies show.
Those extra pounds often stay there — despite promises to shed them come January — adding up after several years to “creeping obesity,” or long-term weight gain.
With the temptation to overindulge beckoning at every turn, many people turn to experts for help, said Darlene Kvist, a Twin Cities nutritionist and director of Nutrional Weight and Wellness.
“We always run our classes right through December, because there are a lot of people who … once they start eating, they can’t stop,” she said.
No one is going all bah humbug on holiday treats. The focus is on not overdoing it as opposed to not doing it at all.
“We definitely talk to clients about how to be mindful about what you’re eating this time of the year,” said Heidi Greenwaldt, a local registered dietitian/nutritionist. “It’s not that you can’t have some Christmas cookies at this time of year. It’s just how much and how often.”
Greenwaldt advises her clients to avoid focusing on foods when celebrating. Instead, she suggests, focus on engaging in conversation with friends and family members.
“It’s that whole mind-set where we live in a society where we don’t want to feel like we’re being deprived,” she said. “We say, ‘I’m going to enjoy this,’ ‘I have to deal with in-laws’ or ‘I’ve had a hard day of work.’ ”
Having a game plan before you hit the buffet line or dessert table at a party helps.
“When you go to parties, it’s being mindful of what they’re serving,” she said. “Look and see what they have first.” That way you can pick and choose how you spend your calories with an eye toward filling up on lower-calorie foods, like veggies and fruit, while saving room for an indulgent treat.
She also tells her clients that their goal should be to maintain their weight through December, not lose weight, which is difficult.
Kvist said one strategy people often use that doesn’t work is they don’t eat all day and then go to a holiday party and gorge themselves.
“Then you’ll get to the party and will be famished. Then you’ll go for foods that are high in fat and sugar,” she said.
Instead of starving all day and overloading at night, she recommends eating smaller meals throughout the day and choosing the right foods. Greek yogurt for breakfast with berries and slivered almonds, for example, and for lunch, a bowl of vegetable soup. “That way, you’re eating something instead of skipping calories,” she said.
Not everyone buys the idea that holiday weight gain is permanent.
“I do see that people gain weight over time but I wouldn’t attribute it specifically to this holiday eating business,” Mann said. “If it interrupts the healthy pattern and you don’t go back to the healthy pattern, or if it causes you to creep to overall worse habits, that could be a problem.”
Still, she acknowledged that overreating is a real threat in December.
“You say this is where I should eat and enjoy,” she said. “It’s very easy to rationalize that — this is the only time I’m going to get this kind of food.”
There’s also the social pressure that comes with eating in those settings.
“At family parties, people push you into eating things,” she said. Work parties bring their own pressures. You may put foods on your plate that your co-workers made because you don’t want to insult them by not eating their food, Mann said.
“Then if you’re at a party and you’re feeling awkward socially, sometimes the easiest thing to do is to wander over to the buffet or the table with desserts on it, and have some,” she added. “It might be the safe and easy thing to do when you arrive at a party and don’t see anyone you know.”
Love at first sight
The mere sight of a tableful of tasty and colorful foods can stimulate our appetites and lead to overindulgence.
“What happens is that when we see certain foods, our brains light up just as if we’ve eaten it,” Kvist explained. “It lights up the dopamine area of our brain, that neurotransmitter that’s the addictive neurotransmitter. It’s also the one that makes us feel good once we have eaten something — usually alcohol or sugar — that has activated that center of our brain. It makes us want more.”
The same pleasure center is triggered when we see a smorgasbord of tempting foods.
“People have a hard time resisting it,” she said. “They want more.”
Some are more susceptible than others to the urge to pile their plates high.
“People who really struggle with this, day in and day out, this is a tough time for them — the holiday season,” Kvist said. “That’s what I keep trying to talk to my clients about: If you keep eating your balanced way, you’re going to feel great the whole holiday season. It certainly does go on a lot faster than it comes off.”