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Indulging the Right Way This Holiday Season

Let this holiday season be filled with cheer; stop stressing over weight gain.

In thinking about or praying for the upcoming year, people often hope to be “happy and healthy.” In theory, these are one and the same; what makes you healthy should be what makes you happy. Yet there is no time of the year when what is “happy” and what is “healthy” are more in conflict than between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Too often we decide to be “happy” in the moment, giving up on health altogether and promising ourselves we’ll fix it in our New Year’s resolution. Instead of leading to health or happiness, this approach sets us up for failure.

Giving yourself permission to indulge at a holiday party is the result of a “permission-giving belief.” This concept was developed 20 years ago by Aaron Beck and his colleagues to describe the rationale of people who allow themselves to engage in unhealthy behaviors. Permission-giving beliefs for eating during the holiday season may relieve the stress of weight management goals and even make you feel better in the moment. Yet the long-term effects can be very damaging.  

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Consider an upcoming holiday party. If you’re pretty healthy and fit most of the time, eating more than you should for one evening might not make that big a difference. On the other hand, if you need to be focused on health because of an issue like diabetes, heart disease or weight management, you have to be hyper-vigilant, perhaps even to the point of packing your own food or stepping away from the party when the dessert is served to avoid temptation.

Many people manage this type of situation by giving themselves permission for a binge. They think that by giving in to temptation, they remove the loss of control typically associated with binge episodes. In the short term, this decision can work and even increase enjoyment. But when the permission-giving occurs over long periods of time, this decision can be damaging.

In many ways, the permission approach mirrors the mentality of individuals who suffer from bulimia nervosa. They give themselves permission to binge eat because they will purge immediately afterwards through vomiting, laxatives, extreme dieting or exercise.

Planning to gain weight through the holidays and take it off in your New Year’s Resolution is not a good plan. Weight management is not an instantaneous process. If you have been gaining weight, starting to lose it is like turning around a car. First your body starts slowing down weight gain, then there is often a plateau, at which point you lose weight very slowly before seeing more consistent gains. Gaining lots of weight in anticipation of a weight loss plan is akin to driving 100 miles an hour towards a red light, assuming it doesn’t matter because you plan to turn around before you get there. While you are trying to stop the car and turn around, your weight gaining momentum may continue even in to your weight management plan, which will compromise your immediate results.

So what can you do?

  • The first step is to acknowledge how difficult this process can be. While it is helpful to hear encouragement, it is often discouraging when well-intentioned people suggest that this process is easy.

  • The second step is to stay in the moment. By focusing on the moment, you not only develop your ability to follow your weight loss plan, but you interfere with the dangerous tendency to give up over long periods of time—like the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

  • Third, try to make assessments of how you will feel before, during and after you eat unhealthy foods to determine how eating will influence your happiness.

  • Fourth, think of the larger goals in your life, and what your weight management will bring you. For example, if you are trying to manage your diabetes to live longer to see your loved ones, try to focus on that while managing your eating. This will not only provide motivation, but also increase your happiness in the moment.

  • Fifth, give yourself non-food-oriented rewards that counterbalance the loss of enjoyment in the moment. A massage, guilty pleasure TV or buying favorite magazines are all possibilities.

  • Finally, plan ahead for when you want to eat in a more unhealthy way and make sure you eat the foods you most enjoy. This will allow you to get the most satisfaction for the calories.

The holidays should be a season of loved ones and good cheer – not the added stress of weight gain. This year, give yourself permission to enjoy the season in other ways, but don’t let all the dinner parties and good food lure you too far off your health management plan. 

Michael Friedman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in how social relationships influence mental and physical health
    
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