The fall and winter months are a time for family, friends, and inevitably, lots and lots of food. As we have written previously, with the holiday season tends to come stress and unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others. Between holiday parties, family dinners, cookie shares, and gift-giving, food is at the forefront of nearly every occasion from October through January. Innocuous holiday treats for some people can be more complicated for others. For people who experience (or have experienced) binge eating – feeling out of control and unable to stop eating a large amount of food for the circumstance — how to manage eating and urges to restrict or binge throughout the holiday season is of great concern. Below, we share 5 guidelines for how to maintain a focus on recovery and prevent relapse at arguably the toughest time of the year.
1. Eat regularly.
In preparation for a holiday get-together, it is common for people to try and skip or limit meals to “save” their calories for later. This might take the form of fasting or restricting for several hours prior to a holiday gathering. What starts out as an innocent attempt to control overeating or prevent weight gain can quickly backfire: as previous research has shown, restriction of food is one of the biggest predictors of later overeating. By denying ourselves food earlier in the day, we are putting ourselves at greater risk for experiencing food cravings and engaging in loss-of-control eating when we do allow ourselves to eat and are in the presence of palatable foods. Similarly, restriction at a holiday meal or get-together can also drive up cravings and overeating later in the evening. To avoid this trap altogether, it’s best to keep up with regular eating every day and at every meal or snack, regardless of the occasion. So, go ahead and help yourself to breakfast and the holiday treat – it will keep your energy up and your cravings at bay.
2. Portion your meals.
The abundance of food – and especially tasty holiday dishes and desserts – also makes it easy to lose track of what and how much we’re eating. Fortunately, there is a happy medium between over- and under-eating that involves a little planning and a lot of intention: portioning. By working with treatment providers or seeking the support of trusted, close family/friends, it’s possible to determine what an appropriate-sized meal or snack should look like. Reviewing the menu or buffet options before choosing what to eat can be one way to achieve this and avoid going for seconds. If you have a general sense of what the distribution of foods should look like on each plate, selecting and portioning your meal according to this distribution is the goal. In instances when someone else is in charge of plating, you might visualize what your plate should look like, and request any extra servings be wrapped up and/or take them to go.
3. Stick to your own routine.
Our culture places increased focus on “fad diets” promoting weight loss, particularly following the holiday season. While it may be nearly impossible to escape some of these conversations, it’s usually best to stick to your own routine. Reminding yourself of your long-term goals (e.g., health, recovery, etc.) can be helpful in guiding what decisions you make when faced with a challenging situation. (To learn more about setting SMART goals, read here.) Some people find it helpful to consider their long-term goals and set specific short-term goals for each situation ahead of time. For example, deciding what to eat beforehand might be a short-term goal towards a larger aim of others’ comments or choices being less influential on mindset or behavior. Remaining mindful of your emotions, urges, and physical sensations in each situation can also keep you insightful about when you, in particular, are most at risk for engaging in an eating-disordered behavior. (Or check out a holiday mindfulness exercise to get some practice in advance!)
4. Build-in (non-food) activities.
The presence of food is not required to have a good time with loved ones. Intentionally planning non-food related activities around regular meal and snack times can help change the tenor or focus of family time. For example, planning to take a stroll or play a game when you are most at risk for binge-eating can help limit and manage urges to binge-eat. When considering what activities might be best for you to plan, consider those that are enjoyable and incompatible with eating, such as painting your nails, knitting, or playing catch or video games.
5. Plan ahead.
There is so much to be said for planning ahead that we will never tire of mentioning it when it comes to managing the holidays successfully. Whether it’s with yourself, friends, or under the guidance of a parent or clinician, identifying high-risk situations and planning how you will handle them is crucial to recovery. While it may be impossible to think up all potential scenarios, understanding of the situations in which you are most at risk allows you to detect and act on these situations earlier. By identifying and practicing specific strategies (e.g., calling a friend, taking a soothing bath, reading a book, mindful deep breathing) ahead of time, you can access these skills more quickly and efficiently when you need them the most. A little brainstorming now may save you a lot of distress later.
The holiday season can be challenging for a variety of reasons. But a little practice, planning, and patience and compassion for yourself can go a long way in managing risks for binge eating.