Don't Let the Holiday Blues Derail Your Diet

Last Editorial Review: 12/18/2006

Keep your good cheer (and your weight-loss plan) intact

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Ready or not, the holidays are here.

For many people, especially those trying to lose weight, it's not an easy time. High expectations of holiday happiness can give way to loneliness, sadness -- and greater vulnerability to the temptations that are everywhere this time of year.

But take heart: If you're prone to holiday blues, there are steps you can take to keep your good cheer (and your diet) intact -- without taking solace in fattening comfort foods.

Adjust Your Attitude

"People who are successful at anything -- whether it's their career, raising kids, or dieting -- come up with a 'lens' they want to view it through," says John Eliot, PhD, a professor of psychology and business at Rice University in Houston, and author of Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance. It's all about attitude, says Eliot. Tell yourself it's difficult to stick to your healthy eating plan during the holidays, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

"You have set yourself up," he tells WebMD. "The same thing happens in golf. If you focus on not hitting the ball in the lake, nine times out of 10 it goes in the lake."

That's because, in your thoughts, your brain doesn't "hear" the word no, Eliot says.

"The brain operates on data associated with very strong emotions, feelings, and pictures," he says. "If you charge the brain with emotions and visuals, the brain will key into those and produce them. In golf, the vision of the lake is a very emotional picture. But with that picture, what you've done is program your brain to get the ball into the lake."

Likewise, your mind governs weight loss -- even how well you survive the holiday blues.

To set yourself up for success, look inside, he says.

"Look at what you want to accomplish, and ask yourself, 'Why is it important to eat moderately?'" Eliot says. "If the answer is 'So someone will say you look great,' that's external motivation. That won't work in the long term.

"Internal motivators are things like feeling good about yourself, having more energy, and being able to run. It's about how you want to feel every day."

Take Charge

When you're feeling sorry for yourself, do something about it, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist and spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association.

For example, if you don't have an invitation to a holiday dinner, make alternate plans.

"Consider volunteering at a Feed the Hungry dinner," Wallin says. "Focus on someone other than yourself. If you're elderly and isolated, call some people. Just a call to say 'How are you?' is very much appreciated at the other end."

To keep yourself from feeling deprived during the holidays, don't banish all your favorite foods.

"After all, Aunt Hilda's brownies come around only once a year," says Wallin. "But if you tend to pig out on cookies, don't go to cookie parties. Have a couple at home, and stop there."

It's also important to get plenty of rest. One recent study showed that sleep deficiency is very stressful on the body.

"Stress wears you down during the day. When you're tired, you lose your willpower and you get into arguments easily," Wallin tells WebMD. You're also more prone to overeat, or to feel the holiday blues.

If you're feeling self-conscious about your weight -- for example, about how family members will react when they see you -- give yourself a reality check. "They're not going to reject you," says Wallin. "Do you reject people based on how much they weigh?"

"Avoiding social events can just sink you farther into the holiday blues."

And by preparing yourself for the situation, you can keep such negative thoughts in check.

Her advice: "If you feel self-conscious, you're better to deflect it right away. If you bring it up, it won't be an issue any more. Tell them, 'Other than this weight I've gained, I'm doing great.' Then change the subject."

Avoiding social events can just sink you farther into the holiday blues. So if you're shy at parties, go prepared with some small talk.

"It's the concept of 'the elevator speech': a 60-second spiel about yourself, maybe about your job or your recent trip to England, or whatever," says Wallin. "Or ask other people about themselves. Comment on what they're wearing, on the flashy earrings, on what you're eating. Talk about anything. Parties aren't about what you say, they're about relating to others."

And go early. "When only a few people have arrived, it might be easier to talk," Wallin says. "Plan how long you'll stay, maybe half an hour. You don't have to stay for two hours.

When you're feeling low and tempted to blow your diet, focus on taming your "inner brat."

"When we feel sorry for ourselves, we rationalize pigging out," Wallin says. "I call that voice inside the 'inner brat'; the part of you that wants it now! "If you can visualize that inner brat, even give it a name, think of it as a 4-year-old child, you're getting it under control," says Wallin. "Who's the boss, the brat or you? Let the brat eat one cookie, then say, 'That'll do you.' Wait 10 minutes, do something else, and see if the brat still wants another cookie. You might be surprised; you may not want it."

Get Walking

After you've had that holiday treat, get moving, advises Sheah Rarback, MS, RD/LD, a dietitian with the University of Miami School of Medicine.

"Have that one cookie, then take a walk," she says. "You're indulging the urge, plus getting double endorphins from the cookie and the exercise."

Walking also mutes cravings that come from boredom, Rarback tells WebMD: "If you get out and walk, you won't crave food as much."

Exercise is a major weapon against both the holiday blues and holiday binges, she says. "Both food and exercise increase the level of feel-good brain chemicals, which makes you calmer and decreases anxiety," she says.

The typical comfort-food meal -- high in carbohydrates with a little protein -- is an excellent feel-good combination (the protein helps keep you feeling full longer), Rarback adds. But "comfort" doesn't have to mean calorie-laden.

Rarback's list of healthy comfort foods:

  • Whole-grain bread with a slice of turkey
  • A glass of milk
  • Food rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as cold-water fish (like salmon), nuts, and flaxseed
  • Chocolate, which has theobromine and caffeine for a mental boost, plus phenylethylamine to stimulate the nervous system and, possibly, produce positive feelings. You don't need a lot, half an ounce or 3-4 Hershey's kisses.
  • Protein for breakfast. "Sometimes people feel sluggish in the morning and have trouble getting going," says Rarback. "Don't have a big bowl of cereal, bagel, or toast. Have a protein meal for breakfast, like yogurt or eggs."

Beat the holiday blues by working these into your diet, says Rarback: "They're good for you all year, but if you feel prone to holiday depression, make sure you're getting enough."

Also, graze -- don't binge -- to keep the holiday blues away, Rarback tells WebMD.

"Instead of eating huge meals that make you sluggish, eat small meals so you'll have steady blood sugar levels throughout the day," she says. "Instead of feeling stuffed, you're always fueling. Portion control is important, but if you stay satisfied, you won't get super hungry and won't give in to binges."

Originally published Nov. 29, 2004
Medically updated December, 2006.

SOURCES: John Eliot, PhD, professor, Rice University, Houston; and author, Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance. Pauline Wallin, PhD, clinical psychologist; and spokeswoman, American Psychological Association, Pennsylvania. Sheah Rarback, MS, RD/LD, dietitian, School of Medicine, University of Miami.

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