Why do seem to struggle year in and year out with holiday weight gain and vow that it's all going to change come January 1st? Historically, the reasons you might pack on some unwanted weight this time of year are multi-faceted. There is just usually an over-abundance of food at gatherings – too many snacks & hors d’oeuvres, preceding too much dinner, followed by dessert, and liberally seasoned with alcohol.
However, just indulging on the day itself is not going to account for that 6+ pounds, right? Luckily, no! The weight adds up gradually, stealthily, through a sweet treat here, a take-out dinner there, and over the course of 30 days, BAM - all of a sudden you can’t button those pants.
This year is very, very different than any year we’ve ever known. Some of us will still find ourselves in familiar situations, facing the usual temptations that are part and parcel of late November and all of December, but for others, challenges may take a novel form this year.
You may be at more or less of a disadvantage in 2020 depending on your personality type, access to friends and family, and how you are planning to celebrate the holidays. Although the likelihood that many of us will be grabbing a drink with the girls, attending umpteen holiday parties with friends, family and co-workers, or grabbing a caramel macchiato & a biscotti while shopping at the mall is reduced, the fact that we are probably missing out on the love and connection with our fellow humans that is the very heart and soul of the season is not to be regarded lightly. The number one reason depression is felt so keenly during the holidays is due to feeling a lack of love and connection that feels ubiquitous for others. Feeling sad or lonely naturally leads us to seek comfort and relief, which we know very often takes the form of food or alcohol (haven’t we seen enough of that since March?).
While the reasons we gain holiday weight can be as individual as we are, there are many common pitfalls that are actually pretty easy to avoid once you’re aware of them. So, no matter what your holidays look like this year, you”ll be empowered to keep yourself feeling (and looking) great – why wait until January 1st??? Let’s look at the biggest pitfalls and how to overcome them. Then bring in all or some of these practices and you’ll cruise through the holidays this year, emerging on Day One of 2021 feeling energetic, vital, and ready to make it the best year yet.
Here's the thing - before we go through HOW you can be the master of your health, I’m going to ask you to do something. Even though I’m convincing you not to fall into the New Year’s Resolution trap, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some value in making a resolution at all. Making a resolution is setting your intention, and intention is the driving force behind everything we create in our lives. When you set an intention, you are taking the reigns of your life – you make the shift from being a passive observer to an active creator.
Get some paper and a pen (I encourage you to actually write instead of type on a computer because studies have shown that writing by hand has a stronger connection with our minds than typing) Make sure you have some undisturbed time just for yourself where you can really focus.
Now, picture what it looks like for you to be at your goal weight and in ideal health. Get as specific as you can – the more you can visualize the more real and accessible your goal will become. Compare “I want to lose weight” with “I want to wear my skinny jeans with a form-fitting top and play tag with my kids.” Saying, “I want to lose weight,” feels vague and boring, doesn’t it? It’s definitely not going to be very compelling when you’re faced with a temptation. We want to create emotional power; that is what your subconscious mind will respond to. Get playful and have fun imagining! What are you wearing? (you fox - I didn't mean it like that!) When you look at your arms, do you see muscle definition? What does your hair look like? Are you smiling? Laughing? How do you feel in your body? Strong? Light? Free? What are you doing (that you can't or don't do now)? Playing with your kids or grandkids? Traveling? Going out for that new career opportunity?
Write it ALL out. When you feel you’ve gotten it all down, finish the following sentence: “I am taking ownership of my health so I can _______________________.” This is what I call your “Macro-Happiness” (as opposed to a “micro-happiness” like the 30 seconds of enjoyment you might feel while eating a cookie). This is your WHY and it is your touchstone, the mantra you repeat to yourself so you will stay present and focused on your goal.
Now that you have a clear vision of what you are creating, let’s explore how we are going to get there. Awareness is where your power lies. It is the key to success in ANY endeavor. It’s that important. We can’t change things we don’t know are a problem. Everything that follows is about creating and sustaining awareness.
When you find yourself in any situation where there’s food, and you reach for that cookie, pastry, or a piece grandma’s homemade fudge, or maybe you’re home alone and you walk over to the fridge, stand with the door open waiting for the leftover pie or ice cream to call your name, in that moment, you have a window in which to retake the wheel. This is your opportunity to check in with yourself and make sure your next move comes from a place of true autonomy that aligns with your Macro-Happiness (ya know, your mantra, the big picture!) and isn’t merely satisfying a fleeting desire (micro-happiness) that is at cross-purpose with what you really want.
So how can you do this? There are many ways to bring yourself back to the present moment (this is where awareness lives), but the two that I’ve found to be both accessible and effective are the S.T.O.P. Technique and the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise. S.T.O.P. stands for: Stop, Take a conscious breath, Observe how you are feeling, Proceed with awareness.
What would that look like in action? You’re about to grab a piece of bread out of the basket sitting in the middle of the table. You have your mantra in the forefront of your mind, so you are able to pause before taking the bread. You breathe in slowly and fully through your nose, pause at the top, and slowly release through the nose or the mouth. Observe how you feel in this moment. Are you anxious? Bored? Maybe you can’t name the emotion, but you notice you are clenching your jaw, tensing your shoulders, or feeling tightness in your chest. If you can, release the tension. Now you have created the space to make a conscious choice. You can either take the bread, or not.
It will likely take less than a minute to perform the STOP Technique, but If that seems like too many steps, you might like to try the 4-7-8 breath instead. You can find tons of video instruction on this (just search Dr. Andrew Weil 4-7-8 breath) but here is how to do it: Breathe in through your nose to the count of 4, placing the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth right behind your two front teeth (you’ll keep the tongue placement throughout the exercise) Hold for a count of 7 and then exhale fluttering the lips (yep - make a horsey noise!) for a count of 8. Repeat this cycle 4 times.
Performing either STOP or 4-7-8 allows you to look behind the curtain. You might realize you don’t want the appetizer, you were acting out of habit, you’re just bored, nervous, or that you’re a little lonely. You might also realize you really want that dang cookie! That’s ok. No matter what the outcome, taking that moment for yourself puts you in control because you are making an active choice.
See where I'm going here? Mindless eating = overeating. Think about it, how many times have you buzzed through a basket of dinner rolls or chips and salsa at a restaurant BEFORE you even ordered your meal? Ever looked down in surprise at that big EMPTY bowl of popcorn you weren’t even hungry for when the movie is over? When we are checked out, the body can’t access a lot of super-important feedback it needs in order to signal you that you DON’T WANT any more food. It’s like there’s no “off” switch. Learning to use mindfulness when enjoying food is not only great for your waistline and health, but it makes everything taste better! Why? Because, and I know you can relate, you hardly tasted that dinner roll, or those chips or popcorn and then they were gone - you didn’t even get to enjoy them! You’re left feeling unsatisfied. Savor every part of the act of eating and you will find you are more fulfilled and contented.
If you can, make sure you are seated before eating (if you’re at a party, avoid standing near the food table unless you’re getting food – take a small plate and find a spot to sit. If a seat isn’t available, do your best to eat slowly and chew thoroughly, taking at least two full breaths between bites). Before you dig in, just take a moment to appreciate your food. Give thanks, say a little prayer, or bless your food. Observe the colors, shapes and aroma. Does it bring up any memories or feelings? As you take a bite, note the texture, temperature and flavors. Is it crunchy or smooth? Is it loud to chew? How many different flavors can you pinpoint? Try to keep the bite in your mouth for about 20 chews if you can. Notice how it feels as you swallow it and then pause gently before taking the next bite. When you take the time to actually enjoy the experience of eating, you’ll probably find you don’t need as much as you thought to feel truly satiated.
Our bodies and minds are programmed to make things as easy as possible for us, and so just as our phones and computers like to do things for us automatically, we are wired to have many things run on auto-pilot as well. This is mostly a good thing! Imagine if we had to remember to make our heart beat or our eyes blink…
However, sometimes the auto-pilot is not serving our best interest, and we need to get back in the driver’s seat. On top of that, we don’t want to add distractions that make it more difficult to keep our eyes on the road. For that reason, we want to keep things like phones, TV, or reading materials out of the picture when we are eating. But beyond that, and don’t shoot the messenger here, we need to be careful with alcohol as well.
Alcohol, not only numbs out your awareness, and we all remember the lecture about it lowering your inhibitions so you’re more likely to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise, but alcohol initiates a physiological response in the body that will cause you to eat more – yup, it goes way beyond just having less will power. Alcohol increases the activity of specific neurons in the hypothalamus which actually simulates starvation! When this happens, our primal instincts kick in and we go for starchy, sugary, or otherwise calorically dense foods because the body is trying to save us from starving. If you still want to enjoy some cocktails this season, I recommend keeping it to no more than two in an evening, and space them out by having a non-alcoholic drink in between. If you don’t want to draw attention from others, you can easily pass off a seltzer on the rocks with lime as a cocktail.
A word of warning, and I'll talk more about this in a moment: Alcohol, like food, can be triggering and when others see us changing our habits, it can make them question their own choices. This is uncomfortable and is why even well-meaning friends and family members can seem unsupportive. "What, are you on a diet?" “Why don’t you have another piece? Don’t deprive yourself! It’s once a year!” Keep your vision close and remember that THAT is what you don’t want to deprive yourself of.
We’ve covered all the in-the-moment tools, but to make those even more powerful, you’ll also need to set up conditions that will make it as easy as possible to use them successfully. That means paying attention to your inner as well as your outer environment.
Paying attention to your inner environment means giving yourself the care and compassion you need and deserve. That could mean meditating, going for a walk in nature, taking a bath, or just taking some alone time. Make it a priority every day throughout the end of the year to do at least ONE thing just for you each day. It doesn’t have to be big and it doesn't have to be complicated– it could be buying some flowers for yourself at the grocery store, or singing your favorite song at the top of your lungs in the parking lot!
Your outer environment can seem a bit more tricky, but you have more power than you might think. Avoid negative or otherwise unsupportive family members if you can. If you can’t, then skip out on being drawn into drama or conflict. If someone says something that gets your feathers up, use your STOP technique or 478 before responding. Keep your goal and plan to yourself unless you are sure to get support and encouragement from those you choose to share with.
I want to leave you with this: when you do goof up, FORGIVE YOURSELF. Say, “OK, well that happened, moving on!” Beware the “eff-it” mentality where we let one mistake turn into a string of poor choices because, “the day is shot.” That way of thinking is just plain counter-productive. So you had a piece of candy. BIG DEAL. Move on; don’t have 5 more pieces, ice cream and pizza because you’re going to restart tomorrow. Do your best and leave the rest – e.g. don’t beat yourself up when you forget to use a mindful technique and before you know what's happened you're crunching some peanut brittle. Seriously. It does absolutely no good and in fact, does harm.
You may not win every battle, but each time you do will create and strengthen new neural pathways in your brain (it’s true!!) making it easier going forward. Think of it like you would if you were trying to build muscle at the gym – you wouldn’t expect to come out ripped after working out for 30 minutes, and it feels a lot harder the first time you lift those weights or try a push-up than it does the fifth, tenth, or fiftieth time!
I wish you much health and success from NOW and into 2021 and beyond. If you'd like to learn how I can provide extra support or individualized education for a health concern, book a call with me. I'd love to talk to you!