First, it's important to understand why it's so hard to keep up healthful habits this time of year. During the fall and winter seasons, the experts say, many factors combine to increase the urge to overeat. They include:
- Food-focused celebrations. We normally socialize with friends and family using food and drink, says Clemens. And on special occasions, such as holidays, the availability and quantity of social fare increases -- raising the temptation to overindulge. The pressure to give in can be great, as we don't want to put a damper on the merrymaking or disappoint loved ones who have toiled to present good eats. The alcohol served at many social events can also destroy our resolve to eat in moderation.
- Stress. As if there weren't enough stress in everyday life, holiday obligations and expectations add to the strain. "In an effort to ensure that you have the perfect holiday, you're doing all these extra things, like making sure you have the right decorations out and making sure your cards are done," says Bethany Thayer, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "All that extra work can be overwhelming. It can add to the stress, and the stress can lead to the overeating."
- Exhaustion. The demands of fall/winter festivities can leave people feeling sluggish and sleep-deprived. And when people are tired, they're more likely to overeat, says Amy Schmid, MA, RD, program director of nutrition communication for the Dairy Council of Nebraska.
- Emotional eating. Schmid says some people use food to soothe sadness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, or loss. Others simply use any celebration as an excuse to overindulge, says Janet R. Laubgross, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in weight management in Fairfax, Va. They think, "'Oh, I get to indulge because it's Halloween' or 'I get to indulge because it's Thanksgiving,'" she says, noting that holiday marketing of food and consumerism contributes to the excess as well. Also, Thayer notes, when people who are trying hard to eat healthfully fall off the wagon, many get frustrated and give up on healthy eating.
- Cold weather. Some people crave high-calorie comfort food and drink when the mercury dips. "It's comforting to eat stuffing, pumpkin pie, or your grandmother's high-calorie salad," says Schmid. "It makes you feel good. It makes you remember the good days."
The same factors that contribute to overeating can also lead to physical inactivity.
"The No. 1 reason people report for not exercising is lack of time," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
And, of course, overfull stomachs from all that holiday feasting, as well as stress, exhaustion, and cold weather, can dampen the best of workout intentions.
3 Keys to Survival
To make the feasting season a healthier one, experts say, it's important to do three things: Practice awareness, manage your stress and emotions, and plan in advance.