Why the holiday season + New Year's = the perfect storm for dieters and binge eaters

“10 Steps to Prevent Holiday Weight Gain!”

“Lighten Up Holiday Recipes to Prevent Holiday Pounds From Piling On!”

“New Year, New You!”

Ugh. Surely you’ve seen messages like this floating around recently. This time of year, disordered attitudes about eating and weight are everywhere you turn, being widely disseminated by news outlets, bloggers, “well-meaning” family members, and random Facebook ads you never asked for.

Besides being annoying and not based on actual facts, these messages really make us forget how to eat normally around the holidays. Our society’s collective plan to diet come January 1st actually leads to increased overeating and binging during the holiday eating season. Ultimately, the fear of weight gain and normalized overindulgence around the holidays has created a culture-wide manifestation of the deprivation mindset.

The deprivation mindset (also known as scarcity mindset) basically looks like this: “Well, [specific food] won’t be around because [reason], so I better eat all I possibly can now”.

That reason could be a number of things- including going on a diet and that food isn’t “allowed,” or because that food is going out of production or may become unavailable (i.e. Twinkies- remember the fuss when people heard they were going to stop making them? Nobody cared that much about Twinkies before that!).

This concept is demonstrated over and over by people trapped in the binge/restrict cycle who eat “just this one last” [bag of chips, pan of brownies, etc.] before “being good”, only to inevitably wind up thinking about that food until another “slip.” Followed by guilt, re-commitment to the diet, restricting (yes, that’s what dieting is), thinking about food that’s not allowed, yet another “slip”, “ah screw it, I’ll do better starting Monday”, binge, guilt, repeat.

***One of the goals of nutrition counseling for people who struggle with binging and restricting is to normalize ALL foods, so that that “one last” food isn’t the “last” at all- it is just another food that can be eaten anytime with no guilt attached.***

So back to the holidays and the New Year…

It’s normal to overeat sometimes. Especially when you only get your grandma’s special Christmas cookies once a year. It would not be unusual to eat enough to give yourself a stomachache when she finishes the first batch. The problem is that if you are planning ahead to New Year’s, and you certainly can’t have cookies on your new “lifestyle plan” (*diet*), you are much more likely to eat to the point of a stomachache over and over again because you won’t be allowed to soon. Think about what might happen next:

-Will you eat as usual all day (probably 3 meals and a couple snacks), or will you skip a meal or two or three to “make up” for the cookies you ate/will eat later?

-What is skipping meals going to do to your hunger later in the day? (Hint: you’ll probably be hungry. Cookies probably seem really appealing when you’re hungry…)

-Wouldn’t it be better to enjoy the cookies without attaching conditions about what you did/didn’t/will/won’t eat? (That’s a great goal to work towards with your non-diet dietitian!)

So how can you navigate the upcoming season while taking the focus off of weight and dieting? Here are a few ideas:

1) Don’t restrict in anticipation of what you are going to eat later. This is almost a guaranteed recipe for a binge.

2) If you do binge or overeat, eat your next meal or snack as usual. Staying on track with your normal meals will send your brain and body the message that it can trust you to continue to feed it regularly- the alternative is restriction which will lead to body mistrust, slowed metabolism, increased food thoughts, etc.

3) Don’t make weight or food-related New Year’s resolutions. (Seriously, would these even be a thing if the holiday season was in the middle of summer? Probably not.)

4) Be mindful of all the delicious smells and tastes of the holidays and try to stay in tune with your body. If you are hungry, eat. If you are full, stop. Recognize that you can always take leftovers to enjoy later. Or you can make an extra batch of your favorite dish to have for the next couple days- you don’t have to stuff yourself because this is the ONE time a year you “get” to eat a specific food.

5) Steer clear of articles, shows, or people that perpetuate the idea that the holidays are going to ruin your health.

6) Extra self-care. Extra therapy or dietitian sessions. Extra gratitude journal entries. Extra naps. Whatever you need to keep yourself grounded, do it!