With the holidays upon us, you will probably find yourself at an office holiday party, dinner party or other social activity surrounded by tempting foods and drinks, which look inviting and taste delicious but are usually high in calories, fats and simple sugars.
Many people overeat during the holidays – and not just because of the increased availability of goodies. Often, individuals are attracted to such foods because of their association with celebrations and other positive childhood memories.
Eating foods high in carbohydrates and simple sugars increases the brain chemical serotonin, which affects the brain’s pleasure center. This elevation provides an immediate sense of well-being and makes you feel good. However, this feeling is very short-lived, and can add to feelings of depression, increased anxiety, fatigue and difficulty sleeping. Additionally, consumption of these foods wreaks havoc with blood-sugar (insulin) levels, causing a depressed mood when those levels drop.
Some people use food for self-soothing as they seek to re-create a happier time when they were part of a family structure or social support system that involved holiday food and a sense of belonging. Older adults living alone who have decreased social support because their spouse has died or their extended family lives out of the area are particularly vulnerable. They are often lonely and turn to food or alcohol to feel more connected to others.
Creating a plan
Overindulging during the holidays can trigger a cycle of guilt and remorse. People often think, “I’ve already blown it, so I might as well give up.” Those who drink more than they normally would may experience a loss of inhibition, causing them to eat and drink even more and put on additional pounds. According to the National Institutes of Health, holiday eating can result in an extra pound or two every year.
The good news is that those prone to overeating and gaining weight during the holidays can take steps to effectively manage their behavior. The most important step is to create a plan.
• Manage your activities. If you are a highly social person, try to pre-empt holiday stress by not overbooking yourself with too many activities. If you live alone and don’t have a large social network, don’t hide out. Find some activities to engage in, such as volunteering in the community. If you’re a senior, visit your local senior center to interact and converse with other people.
• Maintain your current exercise program or build in additional physical activity. If you are a regular at the gym, keep going. If you drive to work, park your car farther away than usual and walk the extra distance, or walk around the block during lunchtime. Take the stairs instead of the elevator in your office or apartment building.
• Train your brain. Rather than soothing your mood with food, consider a warm bath or massage. If you’re feeling isolated and depressed, go outside and take a walk or call a friend rather than turning to mindless eating for a quick fix, which sets up a cycle of remorse and guilt. If your mood is really bad, however, contact your doctor.
If you overindulge during the holiday, don’t get completely derailed and beat yourself up. Pick yourself up the following day with a reminder that today is a new day during which you will get back to managing your plan. Be realistic about your health goals during the holidays and, most importantly, enjoy the time with family and friends.
Barbara A. Mocnik, R.N., CNS, is clinical director of Behavioral Health Services at El Camino Hospital.