It's peak season for overeating — and then beating yourself up for doing it.
Clearly, you’re not the only one treating yourself to pumpkin and pecan pie, egg nog and, yes, fruitcake. Yet it’s no comfort that everyone else and their Weight Watchers’ leader is also riddled with guilt and enduring a personal thrashing for the extra calories and potential weight gain. While this self-flagellation goes on, you're missing out on enjoying the holidays.
If only there were a better approach to holiday eating, maybe then you’d be able to stop beating yourself up, enjoy eating what you love and savor everything else you really do love about this season.
Happily, you don’t need an emergency gastric bypass to stop the vicious cycle: putting an end to both overeating and self-criticism might be easier than you think. It might be as easy as reviewing some research-based strategies honed from a group training I lead for people with eating issues. It revolves around practicing a variety of mindful eating and self-compassion meditations.
Here are five proven tips for happier, healthier holiday eating:
1. Redefine Holiday Eating
You’ll need a better working definition of “normal holiday eating” if your definition sounds anything like my esteemed colleague and family eating expert Ellyn Satter’s:
Most people get caught up in what they should and shouldn't eat. They’re anxious and ambivalent about eating. They might try to resist at holiday parties, but the table is laden with ‘forbidden food,’ and they throw away all control and overdo it. Many times they're over-hungry because they're trying to restrict themselves and lose weight. So the standard definition of holiday eating becomes eating way too much.
If you’d prefer to take fewer bites and ease the anxiety and ambivalence, now’s the time to do the exact the opposite, starting with eating regular meals and snacks. Then, come party-time, permit yourself to eat the foods you enjoy. You’re probably going to eat them anyway, so you might as well as enjoy them, without the guilt and other uncomfortable emotions that predictably fuel emotional eating.
2. Go Easier On Yourself
If, like most dieters, you’re hoping that feeding yourself a steady diet of self-criticism will inspire you to rein in your eating, think again. You’ve actually got it backward. Self-criticism — calling yourself fat, disgusting and other mean, nasty names — is really a recipe for emotional overeating and holiday weight gain.
Self-compassion, the opposite of self-loathing, is a proven strategy for decreasing emotional eating and stopping a downward eating spiral before it starts.
That’s what self-compassion researchers say and that’s what my clients say. Here’s one of them: “I had a dream last night that I was at my goal weight, and it felt easy and effortless and self-compassionate. That said, I also love myself where I am now. I am at a healthy weight, and I'm feeling better about my body, and my eating behavior is better than ever."
3. Take A Compassionate Minute
If you walk into a holiday party, feeling self-conscious about your appearance — maybe because you’re a size larger or your sister-in-law has dieted herself down to less than zero — rather than give yourself a hard time, take a deep breath and silently repeat the traditional phrases of loving-kindness meditation: “May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I live in ease.”
A little self-compassion goes a long way toward a kinder view of yourself, a brighter outlook and greater confidence in handling challenging situations. Even one compassionate minute has the power to lighten your mood, brighten your outlook, and help you make healthier choices. (To learn more about cultivating self-compassion in a pinch, watch this video interview on New Year’s resolutions.)
4. Give Yourself Pause
To curb overeating, you don’t need a specific mindful-eating technique, like putting down your fork or chewing so many times per bite. All you really need is to appreciate what you’re eating, bite by bite. If you can’t imagine mindfully eating a whole plate of latkes and sour cream, can you imagine appreciating the first bite or two, noticing the taste, texture...the whole eating experience? Even an appreciative pause before eating is a gift you can give yourself. It’s pausing that allows you to appreciate all that’s special this time of year, from the quiet beauty of fresh snow and joyful noise of skating on ice to the spicy sweetness of warm gingerbread and the bittersweet memories of loved ones.
5. Interrupt Automatic Eating
If you find yourself automatically reaching for another piece of pumpkin cheesecake, step back from the dessert table and ask yourself: “How do I feel? What do I need? Do I really want another piece of cheesecake?” If you do, by all means, enjoy. But if you feel full, better to interrupt the automatic urge for more. It’ll taste better when you’re hungry. What’s more, a short interruption can give you back control. Choice, too, attests another client: "I have really benefited from consciously thinking of the little choices we insert when we are mindful of our actions. I haven't followed through with the 'right' choice every time, but it's a work in progress."
Jean Fain, LICSW, MSW, is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist, the author of “The Self-Compassion Diet” and the creator of Self-Compassion-Based Eating Awareness Training.