It happens every year about this time. The air gets nippier, the days get shorter -- and your jeans start getting tighter.
Ready or not, feasting season is here -- that seemingly endless time of temptation that starts with Halloween candy and continues with Thanksgiving stuffing and pies, merry-making treats, then New Year's toasts. Even beyond Jan. 1, there are Super Bowl chips and dips and Valentine's Day chocolates to contend with.
"We have four months of constant feasting," says Roger A. Clemens, DrPH, food science expert for the Institute of Food Technologists. "If we do feast, as many people do, without control, then we set ourselves up for bad patterns, ill health, and weight gain."
Statistics for how much weight Americans tend to gain during the end-of-the-year festivities vary from 1 pound to 10, but it's undoubtedly a tough time for anyone trying to eat healthfully.
And then there's exercise. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, most Americans -- 59% in 2003 -- do not engage in vigorous, leisure-time physical activity. Add in the time demands of the holidays and the urge to stay inside because of the weather, and you have a recipe for even more inactivity.
With all this working against us, just how can we keep from overeating and underexercising during the Halloween-through-Valentine's Day season? WebMD asked some health and fitness experts for advice.
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.
1. Practice Awareness
- Be conscious of what you eat and how much, says Karmeen Kulkarni, MS,RD, BC-ADM, CDE, president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association. Allow yourself some special treats on the holidays but have moderate servings. When there's a lot of food available, try an appetizer-sized helping of each dish instead of dishing up a full serving.
- "'Tis the season to be realistic," says Schmid, noting this is not the best time for weight loss. She recommends trying to maintain weight instead of lose it.
- Be sure to keep it all in perspective, the experts say. "Even though it's the holiday season, it doesn't mean for the next three months, you can do whatever it is you want," says Thayer. "Allow [some treats] for the special days, but then get back into your healthy routine the next day."
- Always look for opportunities to move, says Bryant. For example, take a brisk walk whenever you get a few minutes; stand up and move around while you're on the phone call; and walk to a co-worker's desk instead of emailing him or her.
2. Manage Stress and Emotions
- One way to keep stress at a minimum is to lower your expectations about holidays. Ask for help to lighten your holiday schedule. Host a potluck holiday meal instead of cooking dinner. Or serve it buffet style instead of having a sit-down meal.
- Learn to say "no," in a courteous manner, to activities and food that aren't in your best interest. "People may grow to respect it, and may even emulate it," Clemens says.
- If you're sad about a loss, turn to people for comfort instead of food. "Invite a new member to your holiday table," says Schmid. "Maybe it's not the same without a loved one, but think of new traditions."
- At social events, don't fill silence with food. "Many people will eat and drink any beverage because they don't know what to say or how to act," says Clemens. Instead, he recommends making an effort to really get to know people, beyond superficial small talk: "When we do that, we actually have the tendency to eat less," he says.
- Another way to deal with emotions is to make sure exercise remains a priority in your life. Exercise can be a great stress reliever.
3. Plan in Advance
- Eat a little before you go to a holiday gathering; hunger can undo the best intentions.
- Also, avoid sources of temptation whenever you can, says Thayer. After visiting a buffet, leave the room that's filled with food. If there are sweets in the office break room, don't go there. If you're given unhealthy food as a gift, bring it to the office to share.
- If you're traveling for the holidays, pick up some healthy, portable snacks at the grocery store before you leave so you're less likely to be tempted by unhealthy options.
- Think about what really matters during this busy time of year, and plan accordingly. "Figure out what you absolutely have to do, because there always are some obligations," says Laubgross. Then let go of the rest.
- Also, schedule a brisk walk or hike after a holiday party or meal. "Five minutes of exercise is better than 20 minutes of nothing," says Schmid.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line, the experts say, is to try to maintain a healthy lifestyle both in and outside of the fall/winter feasting season. Constant weight gains and losses can be harmful to your health and your psyche.
The best way to survive the feasting season? Keep in mind that celebrations are really about family and friends -- not food.
"We need to instill in our social events that balance, moderation, and variety are key to better health," Clemens says.