Just when you're finally getting your weight under control, boom! It's the holidays, and food is everywhere. From the office to the factory, from the office supply store to the drugstore (not to mention parties and family events galore), it seems as if the Thanksgiving-to-New Year's holiday season is one long, tempting food fest designed to make you gain weight.
Add in the emotions of the season and experts say the holidays can deal your weight loss efforts a double whammy.
"You've got the stress of the holidays, along with a lack of sleep, and, for many, a cauldron of bubbling emotions coming to the surface -- and you've got all this food beckoning you at every turn," says Warren Huberman, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in weight control at New York University Medical Center. "It can be a dangerous combination for those who have problems controlling what they eat."
But it is possible to keep the holiday food fests from ruining your weight loss plans. One of the best ways to start, experts say, is by discovering what your personal holiday overeating cues really are.
Food and Feelings: The Holiday Weight Gain Double Whammy
Though it may seem as if the temptation to overeat is all wrapped up in those hand made cannoli or that German chocolate cake, just being around more scrumptious food isn't the whole story. One recent study indicates that, for most of us, the drive to overeat at any time of the year is governed more by emotion than environmental cues.
In research published in the journal Obesity, Heather Niemeier, PhD, and colleagues found that for many people, the seed of overeating is actually planted within their emotions. Further, they found that people whose overeating is triggered by emotions tend to have a harder time losing weight and maintaining weight loss.
"When it comes to successful weight loss, our research showed that our emotions and our thoughts seem to actually play a bigger role than environmental cues -- we eat in response to feelings -- and for many people, the holidays can drum up a whole treasure chest of feelings, both good and bad," says Niemeier, a researcher with Miriam Hospital's Weight Control & Diabetes Research Center and the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Rhode Island.
Whether it's longing for the memories of holidays past, having to face the lifelong struggles that come to the forefront at family functions, or just being alone this time of year, for many, this can also be a season of sadness.
"If we have somewhere in our history an emotional response that we responded to by eating, that's going to get triggered again -- that connection gets built and doesn’t get broken, particularly since we keep reinforcing it over and over, over time," says Katherine Muller, PsyD, director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
And there is some research to show that the food itself may act as an emotional trigger, causing even more emotions to bubble to the surface during this time.
"Much like music can evoke memories, so can certain foods stir up memories, plus, the olfactory sense is a direct path to the brain," says Huberman. "So sometimes, even the smell of a certain holiday dish can evoke an emotional response that ultimately sends you back to the buffet table more times then you even realize -- and you don't even know why."
In this respect, experts say, taking a moment to think about what role holiday foods play in your memory bank might help you overcome the temptation to eat them.
"It's OK to have the emotion, to think about the memory, but just don't try to bring back the good times or cover up the bad times with the foods you associate with those feelings," says Muller.
Making a Plan to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain
Although understanding why you eat can offer some measure of control, experts say it's also important to head into each potential food fest with a plan for how you're going to handle the temptation.
"If you think you can just go into the party and wing it, or worse still, believe you can simply avoid the buffet table, it's almost a sure thing you're going to lose control and eat everything in sight," says Huberman.
Instead, he says, you have to have a coping plan.
In research published recently in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, doctors found that dieters who tried to control their appetites using avoidance strategies were at greater risk for overeating than those who developed coping skills to control their overeating.
Among the strategies that work best is positive self-talk, with the help of appetite "flash cards," says Judith Beck, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia and author of TheBeck Diet Solution.
"Part of the Beck Solution is to make a list of every good reason why you want to lose weight, and read it to yourself every morning -- and when you are tempted to eat something you hadn't planned, just read it again, so you're constantly reminding yourself why it's worth it to turn down food," she says.
She believes you have to rehearse your reasons for wanting to be thin, the same way you rehearse the speech you give your boss when asking for a raise or the pep talk you give yourself before any challenging situation.
"You have to condition yourself and change your mind-set about what food means to you," says Beck.
Muller says this method works well for those who are "thinkers" and do well with a script. For those who are more spur-of-the-moment, "see it and eat it" types, a technique called "mindful eating" may work best, she says.
"So often, overeating is connected to a primitive, emotional place inside us, and we just mindlessly start eating," says Muller. "So one of the strategies would be to cultivate mindfulness: Keep bringing yourself back to the here and now, notice what's in your hand, notice what's on your plate, and pay attention to what you are eating."
Huberman says you can also go party-by-party, with a plan for each event: "You can limit the number of dishes you will eat, limit how much you will eat at each course, limit yourself to the three foods you absolutely love the most. The key is to put parameters around how much you will consume, and then stick to your plan."
Don't Let 'Food Pushers' Lead to Holiday Weight Gain
Despite your best laid plans, your holiday food goals can still go awry thanks to "food pushers" – friends, family members, and co-workers who refuse to take "no" for an answer when they're offering fattening treats.
"These are the people who, for whatever reason, seem to believe that their holiday celebration just isn't complete until they get you to give in to their food weaknesses," says Huberman.
From that co-worker with the bottomless cookie jar, to Mom and Great-Aunt Sue with their pecan pies and zillion-carb stuffing, to the hostess who won't let you leave her house before you wolf down a plate of diet-busting treats, even well-meaning friends and family can drag you into the Diet Twilight Zone.
The easiest way out? Just say "no" -- over and over and over, the experts say.
"We call this the broken record technique," says Huberman. "If you continue to politely refuse the food pusher, eventually they will stop pushing you. You don't have to be rude, but you do have to be firm."
Beck adds that we should feel entitled to do what is good for us.
"If you were refusing food because of an allergy or for religious reasons, you wouldn't think twice about saying 'no' and sticking to it," Beck says. "So give yourself that same sense of entitlement when you say 'no' to something because you are protecting your good health."
There's no need for lots of explanation about why you don't want to eat something. You don't even have to mention the word "diet."
"It's really OK to just say 'No, thank you -- it smells divine, but I'm really full.' You don't have to offer more explanation than that," says Huberman.
If you simply can't get away without accepting something fattening on your plate, Muller says, accept it. Then, just walk into the next room and dump it.
"Just because it's on your plate or in your hand," she says, "doesn't mean you have to eat it."