7. 5 Tips to Handle Holiday Eating
Welcome to episode 7 of the Mindful Weight Loss podcast. I'm so glad you are here with me. Thank you to the people in Connecticut and Minnesota who are listening. Thank you to those if you in Canada and the Netherlands who are listening! Like I said in the last episode, it's so fun to see where you guys are listening from and I appreciate ever single one of you. And it is my sincerest wish that when you listen to this podcast you will walk away with insights and actions that you can start applying to your life right now.
So let's talk about holiday eating. First off, if you want tips about planning for a single meal, check out episode 4 - Your 5 Step Thanksgiving Strategy. In that episode I share 5 steps to help you plan and enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, and for many of you this will help with Christmas dinner as well.
In this episode I'm going to talk less about meals, because you don't need a celebratory meal to overeat.
Now, I celebrate Christmas, but I think we can probably all agree that no matter what holiday we celebrate, holiday anxiety is a real thing that we experience. And in my experience it's because we put so much pressure on ourselves to do three things primarily
the first is to make things perfect - buy the perfect gifts, bake the perfect cookies, etc
the second is we try to control other people's behavior - and making things perfect feeds into this - you try to buy the perfect gifts because you want to make people happy, you try to bake the perfect cookies or send a great Christmas card on time because you want people to see you as someone who has it together
and the third thing that we really put pressure on ourselves to do is to enjoy every moment
and I know that hardly sounds like a terrible thing, but when we try to enjoy from a state of have to instead of want to, and we don't acknowledge that sometimes we will feel crummy and that's ok, it creates stress, anxiety, and guilt, and I don't have to tell you that carrying those around is the opposite of enjoying every moment
And notice these three things that we pressure ourselves to do: make things perfect, control other people, and enjoy every moment. And they are pretty much impossible.
There is no perfect. We cannot control other people, no matter how hard we try, and when the dog pukes on the rug, that's not an enjoyable experience.
And so we set ourselves up for failure right from the get go. We ask ourselves for the impossible and then make ourselves feel guilt and shame when we don't live up to those impossible expectations.
And now I want to take you on a tiny tangent there because the pandemic we've been living through is a big part of this. Like it or not, it's affecting our holiday celebrations and so much more. And it's done a number on the entire year.
This year has not been what any of us has expected. Work, school, and so much more have been turned upside down. People have been laid off, businesses are struggling and closing down.
And you know even if you haven't experienced those kinds of economic setbacks from this, you need to cut yourself a break and realize that you too need to grieve the 2020 you thought you were going to have.
Those of us who aren't really struggling with job layoffs and the like, we tend to tell ourselves that because we missed a vacation and have to work from home, that our problems don't matter - that we shouldn't be sad and that we should be counting our blessings instead.
And while I grant that if you can find a silver lining to all this that you can focus on that actually makes you feel good to think about, great. But if you are just telling yourself that you should be happy, notice that thought doesn't feel good. You are denying what you are really feeling. You are resisting what is really going on with you and that resistance will likely manifest as overeating.
If you have been overeating due to COVID, I would bet money that this is one of the reasons. You're not letting yourself feel bad about what for you is a bad situation.
And the ironic thing is that if you acknowledge those feelings and let them come to the surface, they will move. You'll feel some weight lift and then you will be able to see some more of those positives that you were telling yourself you should be thankful for.
So if you want to give yourself a real gift for the holidays and step into the new year with more positivity and more freedom, more love and appreciation, please, make a list of everything that COVID has ruined for you and let yourself feel the sadness, the missed opportunities. Give yourself an hour to be sad and let yourself cry about all the things you miss maybe about going to the office, and about the kids actually being in school. Cry about the fact that you never thought you would actually miss your commute. Cry about the fact that you probably haven't hung out with your best friends at all this year. You have to let it out to let it go. And yeah, this may be hard. It won't feel good, but I promise that the pain won't last forever and you will feel relief afterwards. It's only what you resist that persists.
And that wasn't really so much of a tangent because COVID is very likely impacting your holiday celebrations too. You probably aren't seeing family and friends like you normally would and you're going to need to grieve that too. Sure it may be for the best in terms of our health and hospital system, but that doesn't make it suck any less. Saying that your feelings aren't valid, doesn't make them go away. You can't control your emotions by ignoring them. The only way to let them go is to acknowledge them and feel them.
So going back to all that pressure we put on ourselves to be happy, my first tip is to stop requiring the impossible of yourself. When you feel this pressure you need to take a good look at what you are attempting to control, because when you try to control situations or other people's reactions or behaviors, you're asking for the impossible.
And that leads to the next tip, which applies to the holidays and COVID. Forget the guilt and grieve what you are missing. Stop telling yourself that other people have it worse and allow yourself to acknowledge that there are things in your life that you would prefer to be different, that you have negative emotions about those things and that's ok. You cannot shift your own frame of mind if you are resisting what you actually think and feel. But if you acknowledge those feelings and let them move, you make room for new, good thoughts that can lead to new, good feelings.
Now, my third tip is related to both of these and its to, drumroll please, lower your expectations.
Ugh, that sounds terrible right. Like well if I just plan on having a terrible time, anything slightly better than that will seem better. Thanks for the wonderful advice Emily. I get it, but hear me out. First off I'm not talking about having crazy low expectations, I'm talking something like maybe 8 out of 10 on a 1-10 satisfaction scale. I talked about this in the thanksgiving episode, but I want to explain it more thoroughly here.
Dopamine is a neurochemical that is associated with pleasure. And it's like a red flag that makes your brain pay attention. And it does this when it anticipates rewards. And there's something called the reward prediction error that has a big effect on dopamine production. When we anticipate a reward, we get an initial hit of dopamine, and if we get that reward and it meets our expectations we get another little hit of dopamine and a little pleasure. When that reward doesn't meet our expectations, dopamine shuts down and we feel let down. But when that reward exceeds our expectations, we get a big hit of dopamine and a surge of pleasure.
So, keeping your expectations just slightly lower than maybe what you're really after is a great strategy in every scenario.
And again, this can be slight. You don't need to shoot for a 2 out of 10, just shoot for a 7 or 8 out of 10 instead. And when you get a 9 out of 10, your brain will be really, really happy.
And since this is a podcast about losing weight, I want you to know that this happens with the food we eat too. Dopamine is released when we anticipate eating the good food and again afterward which I think would ideally happen when we are physically sated and mentally satisfied. So you'd get that second dopamine surge to signal satisfaction and you're done. However, that reward prediction error happens here too, and when you overdo it on the expectations - when you are anticipating a 12 out of 10 and it's actually more like a 9 out of 10, well guess what, dopamine shuts down and you don't get pleasure you were expecting. Talk about a fantastic scenario for overeating. Because this can turn into a vicious cycle. You're not satisfied so you think, well maybe this food will do it and you psych yourself up for it, you think this is what I really want, this will definitely be a 10 out of 10, but then it's only an 8 out of 10, because you are actually physically full, and again since you were expecting too much, letdown. And then you do it again with another food, only this time your satisfaction continues to drop because you are physically beyond full.
Does this sound familiar or ring a bell to any of you? I really hope so because just knowing this about your brain is huge. The next time you're not satisfied, remember this and know that it's not that the food wasn't good enough, it's not that you just can't be satisfied, it's not that anything is wrong with you. In fact your brain is working exactly as it should. And eating more at this point won't satisfy you, no matter how good the food is.
And you can avoid this scenario by lowering your expectations around food; by changing your thoughts about the food. And I grant that doing this takes practice, but it is entirely possible to guide your thoughts around food; to realize when you are increasing your desire and you need to tone it down a bit. Yes, food is awesome and pleasurable and it can be a highlight during a day or during the Christmas season, but if it's the only highlight that you are focusing on, and if you really build it up to be a perfect, orgasmic experience, then you are probably, most likely going to feel let down. Because notice you are asking for the impossible again - you're asking food to give you the perfect experience.
So, please do, make food part of your celebration, but don't make it the be-all end-all of your holidays. And if you have a hard time with that, I challenge you to make a list of everything you can enjoy about the holidays this year, that is not food. And then focus on those things and actually enjoy them. And if you did the grieving exercise I already mentioned, this will be a great follow up. You'll be cleaned out, you'll have gotten rid of the guilt, and you and ready to appreciate all the wonderful things you do have at your fingertips.
My fourth tip is to make joyful plans, and that might seem counter to what I just said, but it's not. The thing is, with weight loss and so many other rewards in life, we have been sold a false idea that hard work, sacrifice and restriction are the way to get there. So we think we need to restrict and sacrifice to lose weight and then when we try to celebrate and enjoy the abundance that is the holidays, it just doesn't compute and one of two things happens: we either try to restrict and deprive ourselves and when that feels bad, we run in the other direction and end up overindulging and then we feel guilty and beat ourselves up for that. OR we don't try the restriction/deprivation part. Instead we tell ourselves that we're going to just eat to our heart's delight and get back on track come January 1, but then, because we have existing patterns of restricting, binging and guilt around food, we activate those patterns. We probably overindulge and, even though we gave ourselves permission to do so, we feel the guilt creep on, and then because we don't want to acknowledge that guilt and shame, we just keep on going, promising ourselves that redemption is right around the corner with our amazing ability to transform into a totally different person in order to comply with our restrictive new years resolutions.
So, don't do that to yourself this year. Don't restrict over the holidays, but don't go on the other end of the seesaw and plan to throw caution to the wind either. Neither of those choices feels good. Neither one serves you. Instead, why not plan to maintain your weight and be sensible. Enjoy all the treats, but don't enjoy ALL the treats. And the best way to do that is to plan what you're going to eat. My students learn to plan their meals every day and in a way that's about balance rather than restricting vs overindulging. We plan with the goal of creating a realistic plan that balances foods that you love the taste of with foods that feel good in your body. And you can do that and enjoy holiday treats. You can maybe plan for healthier lunches and breakfasts and plan to leave some room at dinner so you can enjoy a few holiday cookies or pieces of fudge afterwards. And you could do that every single day and maintain your weight. It takes practice, but when you get off the sea-saw of restriction vs overindulgence, it's incredibly easier.
And that brings me to my final tip, and that is to pay attention to your eating, especially when you do overeat. Pay attention with the goal of realizing something about the experience, about your brain, about your thoughts, about if the food was enjoyable or not, really anything. Just be in that experience with yourself with compassion. And that doesn't mean that you won't judge yourself or feel guilt or shame. If you are a practiced overeater those things likely will come up. But instead of following them and going down a path of pain, you can just notice them, allow them to be there and then refocus yourself on what you can learn from the experience.
One of my mantras is that every overeat is an opportunity to learn, and that's always true in my experience. So pay attention and ask the right question. Instead of criticizing yourself and asking why the heck you did this again, ask yourself what you can learn from this experience. That reframe, that refocus, that intention to come away with something you can use to help yourself instead of tearing yourself down - that in and of itself is a miraculous change in thinking that can produce really wonderful results.
So, that felt like a long one today, but I sincerely hope it helps you this December and beyond. Here is a quick recap of the 5 tips:
1. Stop trying to do the impossible - stop trying to control things that you can't
2. Let go of the guilt and grieve for the 2020 and the holidays you wish you had.
3. Lower your expectations especially when it comes to holiday goodies.
4. Make Joyful, sensible plans. Get off the seesaw and create plans that are balanced.
5. And 5 - pay attention to your eating and make the intention to learn something if you overeat
Next week, I will be talking about New Years Resolutions, so please join me.
And please enjoy everything about the holidays you can and let yourself feel crappy about he things you can't. Take care!