It happens to the best of us. We’re at a holiday celebration and we indulge a little too much in the festive food and drink. The holidays can be a joyous time, but for some it can trigger bouts of overeating and disordered eating – leading to increased stress and even shame. Dr. Liz Chamberlain from the CU Medicine Weight Management and Wellness Clinic discusses some of the reasons we tend to overeat during the holidays, and what we can do about it.
“Our brains can be jerks sometimes,” says Dr. Chamberlain. “I like to think about eating as more than just about hunger. We often eat to soothe ourselves. We eat when we’re stressed, bored, lonely or tired. All of those triggers can lead to us eating for reasons other than hunger and our brain makes connections with food as soothing.”
What can be done about these brain connections that tell us food will help us feel better? Dr. Chamberlain explains the importance of acknowledging that celebrations are important and sometimes we need to celebrate with loved ones and the foods that bring us together. “Being aware that we want to eat food that tastes good to us while with loved ones, and at the same time approaching it knowing we could overeat,” is very important for being prepared during this time of year according to Dr. Chamberlain. “Now is a great time to start doing some mindful eating practices.”
Holiday Mindful Eating Tips to Manage the Urge to Overeat:
- Plan ahead
Losing weight or even managing our weight during the holidays is no small feat. The first tip Dr. Chamberlain gives is to plan for the upcoming holiday festivities. “One of the worst things we can do is to figure things out when we get there. This idea about will power is really about our ability to plan ahead and anticipate the food that will be available, as well as the stress triggers that might come up,” says Dr. Chamberlain. When we plan for food and the social situation, we can plan for what we are going to do when confronted with a lot of delicious food.
- Use HALT
HALT is a strategy used in psychology around addiction, as well as in food and mindful eating management. It’s something that can be practiced every day when a food craving comes up. Here’s what HALT stands for:
H – am I hungry?
Start HALT with asking yourself, “Am I hungry? When’s the last time I’ve had a meal or snack? Is it time to fuel my body?” If it is time to eat, go ahead and eat something that will give you the energy to go on with your day. If you’ve recently eaten, then check in with the rest of the HALT acronym.
- A – am I angry, anxious or agitated?
These three “A” emotions can trigger the temptation to eat. But what we really need is to acknowledge these feelings and see if there’s something we can do about it. Taking a break from what we’re doing or getting up to move our body is a great way to manage these emotions. Dr. Chamberlain explains, “It’s even better if you can get outside for a quick mindfulness exercise like naming what you see, smell, hear and feel outside.”
- L – am I lonely?
Loneliness happens to a lot of us. Getting to know the times of the day that may feel lonely is important. Ask yourself, “Is food going to help my loneliness?” It probably won’t but it may feel soothing. An alternative to reaching for the snacks would be reaching out to a friend or joining a group to feel more connected.
- T – am I tired?
“Sometimes we have so much on our plate. We feel like we must eat to do the next thing and get energy,” explains Dr. Chamberlain. Instead, we may need to rest and take a non-food break. Practicing good sleep habits like getting ready for bed at the same time every night has numerous mental and physical benefits.
- A – am I angry, anxious or agitated?
- Don’t starve yourself before a holiday function
Making sure we don’t starve ourselves before upcoming holiday meals is important for managing our appetites. Keeping a regular eating schedule with foods we know are good for our bodies is a great way to ensure we won’t overindulge due to hunger. “When we restrict our food intake so we can “splurge later,” we tend to overeat even more than we planned with carbohydrates because our bodies are tired and needing energy,” says Dr. Chamberlain.
- Know your triggers and rewards
For a lot of us, holiday get togethers are about family and spending time with those we care about. Having the food is nice, but it’s not actually what our reward is. Remembering that we don’t need to eat everything to have a connection with those around us is important. It’s also important to know our stress triggers at these events so we can be prepared when the urge to eat comes up.
- Follow the 20-minute rule
This tip is easy. Remembering it takes about 20 minutes after you’ve eaten for your brain to register fullness from your stomach. Dr. Chamberlain reminds us, “if you’re still eating after you’ve eaten a meal, it’s possible you may overeat.” Be sure check in with your body for signals of fulness before you reach for another serving.
- Be compassionate with yourself
Overeating happens to all of us. It’s not always something we can manage or control. Being kind with ourselves when we feel like we’ve overeaten is a way to reflect and learn more about yourself and what’s important to us.
Dr. Chamberlain also reminds us that the holidays are not always a joyous time. For some, this time of year can be quite difficult. We could be missing loved ones or never really liked this time of year. “Being compassionate with ourselves when everyone around us is feeling like it’s the most wonderful time of the year can be hard,” explains Dr. Chamberlain. “Reach out to your support system or therapist when things feel hard because you’re not alone.”
If you or someone you know is in need of urgent mental health support, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255 or text “talk” to 38255. You can also chat online through the Colorado Crisis Services website.
Dr. Chamberlain is a licensed psychologist at CU Medicine. She holds a faculty appointment in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and is the faculty wellness officer in the Department of Psychiatry. She practices at the CU Medicine Weight Management and Wellness Clinic located in the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center.