Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Food, Food, Glorious Food

December 18, 2006

We are already into the six-week holiday eating orgy. It starts with Thanksgiving and ends on New Year's Day with a guilty resolve. How do we survive this period of big meals, convenient trays of rich foods and snacks, generous hospitality, and holiday parties and celebrations surrounding food?

We do less physical work and less exercise during the winter months. The problem is compounded by holiday stress and the tendency to eat more when we are anxious. Some people let it all hang out during the holidays. They eat like there is no tomorrow - at least until January 2 when they plan to deal with it.

Others try really hard - too hard. They start a cycle of binging and fasting. They make too many strict rules for themselves, break the rules while they are in a state of hunger and then feel guilty and ashamed. This adds to their stress and propels them to eat more. It is a vicious cycle.

The biggest health problem in the U.S. and Canada is not starvation, but overeating and being overweight. The holiday season is a time of indulgence and binge eating in a culture that already overeats.

How do we survive it without gaining an extra five, ten or 15 pounds? What a struggle it is to get them off in January - if we do!

To answer such personally perplexing questions, I turned to Francie Berg, a Licensed Nutritionist and Editor and Publisher of the Healthy Weight Journal. Francie is from Hettinger, North Dakota.

Berg's general philosophy about eating behavior is for society to get away from its fixation on dieting. She advocates changing eating habits slowly and gradually, being physically active and managing stress as an overall strategy for healthy living. Here is her basic advice for holidays eating:

1. De-emphasize food. Spend less time cooking, baking, pouring over cookbooks and recipes. Talk less about food and how delicious it tastes - this adds to the desire to eat. Get involved with other holiday traditions, the meaning of the holiday and the pleasure of spending time with family and friends.

2. Cut back on sugar, fat, salt. Serve lighter meals and fewer deserts. Reduce sugar and fat in your favorite recipes. The taste will be nearly the same.

3. Encourage moderation. There are no good foods or bad foods. It is the quantity that is the problem. A general rule about eating moderately will help people guide their behavior instead of a specific rule that invites the binge and fasting cycle.

Begin with smaller servings. Avoid heaping serving bowls. Eat normally and listen to your stomach signals about when you are full. If you are the host, don't urge second or third helpings on guests.

4. Eat less often. Avoid eating snack foods and eating between meals. Part of overeating during the holiday season is the convenient presence of rich foods at times and places we don't normally expect. We expect big meals at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. What makes holiday eating such a problem is all the overeating on the other days.

5. Keep temptation out of sight. Clear away the leftovers quickly and get them out of sight. Don't sample as you go. Keep the snack and treat trays out of sight and bring them out for guests or on special occasions only.

6. Exercise on days you eat big meals. Take the time to go for a walk and do something physical. Use that time for visiting. Exercise makes you feel better, lowers stress and helps your cardio-vascular system.

7. Avoid guilt. The beginning of the holiday season isn't the time for radical changes in eating behavior - and neither is January 2. Worrying about food, weight and appearance adds to the problem. The problem isn't losing weight but changing a habit. Changes in habits should begin slowly and unfold gradually. Eat the big meal and taste the rich dessert. It is OK and how you look is OK.

Healthy living is in not counting calories, fat grams or engaging in yo-yo dieting. If changes need to be made, it is in overall eating habits, eating balanced meals and building exercise into your life.

8. Manage the stress of the holidays. Question your holiday routine. Cut out activities you don't enjoy. Make gift giving easier. Don't over schedule yourself. Cut back and say no when you want to say no. Find times and ways to relax amid the hustle and bustle of the season.

Some overeating may be connected with holiday depression or other causes relating to your past emotional history. Don't use overeating as a way of self-soothing, covering pain or coping with stress. For some eating problems, you need to explore the root causes instead of fighting the symptoms. Berating yourself for overeating during the holidays isn't helpful when you haven't addressed the real issues yet.

So the idea is not to run in fright from the brownie tray, but not to eat them all either. That sounds doable.