By Karen Baar
No one wants to be a killjoy at a Christmas party or a family get-together. But when it comes to dealing with the temptations of the season's high-calorie bounty, you don't have to be a Grinch.
You do need a plan, says Susan J. Bartlett, Ph.D., an associate director of clinical psychology at Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore and a specialist in weight and eating disorders. Last year, she led a small group at the center through the following eat-right strategies. Her expertise and her students' experiences provide practical lessons for anyone to try.
It Just Keeps Going
The holiday season consists of nearly two months of celebrating, says Bartlett, with goodies appearing in homes and offices at Thanksgiving and continuing until the beginning of January.
"By Christmas, most of the plans to eat less and exercise more have dwindled, and it's easy to gain a significant amount of weight, even seven to 10 pounds," she notes. One way to monitor your intake over time: Keep track of your daily habits and set weekly goals around food intake and exercise.
Realize the Challenge
"At any time of the year, losing weight and keeping it off is very difficult," says Bartlett. "Holidays are an especially high-risk time." The idea that you should stick to a "diet to lose pounds" is adding stress to an already stressful season.
Set achievable goals, suggests Bartlett. Sure, you may be able to exercise four days a week and eat only 1,400 calories a day at other times, but is it really feasible during the holidays? You're much more likely to stick to your plan and succeed if you set your expectations more realistically, aiming to maintain your weight or to minimize weight gain to, say, one to three pounds.
Write It Down
When you've figured out your goals, write them down and keep a diary of what you eat. "When researchers talk to people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off, they inevitably say that writing everything down made the biggest difference. It's that willingness to stay in touch with what you're eating that's important," Bartlett explains.
Even more critical is keeping track of your weight: Group members weighed in every week. "People say this accountability factor makes a big difference," notes Bartlett. "Often, people avoid the scale because they don't want to come face-to-face with the news." But if you detect a two to three pound gain, there's still time to get back on track before things escalate.
It's easy to underestimate the toll that the season takes — physically, psychologically, and emotionally. To avoid gaining weight, you need commitment and awareness. It's best to do this with a group of people — even one or two friends or a close buddy — whom you can call upon to talk about eating concerns.
In Bartlett's group, members "got specific" when providing one another with support, preparing strategies for potentially troublesome situations coming up that week. For instance, how would someone manage her food intake with three holiday parties in a row? When the group got together the following week, they'd review how things had gone.
Identify Difficult Situations
One of the best outcomes of a calorie chat group is identifying the situations that cause you to overindulge. Barbara Bohner, a 55-year-old elementary-school guidance counselor, who has worked with Bartlett since last December, has her own trick for getting through parties: "I eat raw vegetables or a piece of fruit before I go out, so I have something in my stomach. I don't drink any alcohol; instead, I try to hold a glass of sparkling water, so I feel like I'm doing something with my hands. And I try to talk more than I eat.
Avoiding alcohol also appeals to Martha Barchowsky, a 43-year-old businesswoman who has lost more than 100 pounds working with Bartlett. "Last year I had a New Year's Eve party; I served everyone champagne to toast the holiday, but I had sparkling water in my champagne flute. It's not the champagne that matters; the real deal is that you're celebrating with your good friends."
What if you've identified your red flags, but you don't heed them? Bohner uses a quick test to put things in perspective. "I use a scale of zero to 10, with zero being starving and 10 really stuffed. I write down how I felt when I started eating and when I finished." When she goes over seven, she knows she was eating to meet emotional needs rather than actual hunger. "There's no reason to eat until you're stuffed," she adds.
Whatever method you choose, it's best to take stock and be honest with yourself. If your goal is to exercise three times a week, how many sessions do you miss before you admit you are slipping? Going to an event without a plan is also a signal that you're not focusing on your eating.
Besides the red flags, it's important to understand other, more subtle tricks you use to justify an overindulgence. "We all tell ourselves stories that are the same, time after time, like 'if I overeat Friday or Saturday, I'll be extra good Monday morning,'" Bartlett says. "Other familiar half-truths are: 'I've eaten an extra thousand calories so I'll do an extra session at the gym,' or 'I'll eat what I want tonight and worry about it tomorrow.'"
Still, lapses are inevitable no matter how well prepared you are. And when you slip, you become vulnerable to a common pitfall — abandoning your entire plan until after the holidays because you made one mistake. It's far better to forgive yourself and move on. "Recognize what's going on, stop it and get back on track quickly," says Bartlett. "I tell people to put things in perspective and remind them that overeating on one occasion is not what causes weight gain; it's consistently eating too much."
Taking this into account, the group members did a lot of planning for "the day after." When someone slipped up at a party, they mapped out what to eat at their next meal, checking calorie and fat intake. Surprisingly, even when someone breezed through a party, she often needed a strategy to get through the next few days.
"It's easy to underestimate how difficult it will be to avoid overeating at a party, either as a reward or because you've been stimulated and you're biologically hungry. And psychologically you're tired, so you may not be as good at recognizing the danger signs," Bartlett maintains.
The holiday season can be stressful. You may be feeling financially pinched or extra tired from lack of sleep. And extended visits with your family are not always tension-free. To avoid getting trapped into using eating as an emotional crutch, devise strategies for basic self-preservation. "Focus on what you absolutely need so you don't get caught in a whirlwind," suggests Bartlett. This may mean having time alone, getting enough sleep, having your family help out with shopping or food preparation, or hiring extra help to clean.
Because you may feel under a lot of stress, it's easy to overeat at home too. Here, it pays to challenge some of your basic assumptions. For instance, just because you've always done it, do you have to bake six dozen sugar cookies this year? If you have them around the house, you'll eat them. Bake fewer or give some away.
Several group members found themselves in a quandary about what to serve at their parties, worrying that their guests would only enjoy rich foods and eggnog. But it's perfectly acceptable to modify recipes, using lower-fat options, or to offer a variety of choices.
"When I have a party, I can control the kinds of foods offered," says Barchowsky. "Obviously, I'm not going to invite my friends over and give them only low-fat, low-calorie foods. I'll serve cookies too." And share the wealth: Give calorie-laden leftovers to guests as they leave, instead of packing them into the refrigerator, where they'll be tough to resist.
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
Every week, try to have as many "normal" days — when you eat healthy foods and exercise — as possible. While a workout can't compensate for overeating, it does help stabilize weight and gives you a psychological boost too. Of course, it's frequently the first thing to be eliminated from a busy schedule. "Write your exercise time in your weekly planner and consider it as absolute," says Bartlett, who also suggests tapping into what may be a hidden resource, namely, your family.
If you have a weight problem, family members may not know how to help. It's up to you to figure out your vulnerabilities and strengths — and communicate them.
Weight specialist Susan Bartlett suggests the following ways to keep your caloric count in check at a big event:
- Don't arrive hungry; eat something before you go.
- Pass up peanuts, pretzels, chips, and other everyday snacks. Spend your calories on the special treats you really want.
- Wear a form-fitting outfit, with a belt if possible.
- Make socializing, rather than food, the focus of the event.
- Keep your portions in check — to keep calories under control.
- Plan how much alcohol you'll drink. It loosens your inhibitions and contributes to calorie consumption.
- Don't stand near the buffet table. In fact, keep your back to it, so you won't even see it!
- Make a deal with yourself that you will learn something new about someone you don't know at the party.
- Wear a special piece of jewelry — a sparkly bangle or big ring — as a visible reminder to yourself to eat in moderation.
- Practice saying "no, thank you." It's okay to turn down invitations or tell a pushy host you don't want seconds.