Alternate Expectations: A Guide to Navigating Holiday Eating
Warren Huberman, Ph.D.
The holiday season is here and itâs time for us all to quickly gain ten pounds. What? Why would I say that? I say that because itâs written all over the place. Over the next few weeks, you are going to see and hear references to our tendency to gain weight during this time of year in every newspaper, magazine, website, blog and television news program. And while the opportunities to eat may increase this time of year and the kinds of foods pushed on us are often not the healthiest, you donât have to gain weight. However, if you EXPECT toâŠyou will.
What do expectations have to do with weight gain? Think of expectations as a combination of predictions and learned patterns of behavior. Outcomes that have occurred in the past, we generally expect to happen again. Take Thanksgiving for example, or what I like to call âNational Binge Eating Day.â Thanksgiving is one of those few days of the year where the holiday seems to be about overeating. Of course, Thanksgiving is supposed to be about taking the opportunity to give thanks for how fortunate we are to live in this great country and to count our blessings for what we have. However, if you ask most Americans what comes to mind when they think of Thanksgiving Iâll bet turkey, stuffing, pie and football come long before giving thanks. More importantly, itâs not only food and eating that we think of but overeating and overindulging. This is so common that itâs often parodied in television commercials. Companies that manufacture antacids run ads showing people with exploding pant buttons or slumped back in the big armchair following the big meal. Thanksgiving, holiday parties and overeating seem to be synonymous.
Many of us expect to overeat on Thanksgiving and at holiday parties so we inadvertently mentally gear up for this to happen. With this expectation of overeating in mind, our behavior becomes less controllableâŠyouâre psychologically setting the stage for a binge to occur by expecting a huge meal to be served and by recalling previous Thanksgivings when you overate. Similarly, this is the season of holiday parties. Holiday parties tend to include foods that are rich, highly caloric and plentiful. And letâs not forget the alcohol. When you attend holiday parties, many of us EXPECT these foods and drinks to be available and we are more likely to overindulge if that has been our pattern in the past. Youâre certainly not a drone who is unable to make change, but it is infinitely less likely unless you take active steps to make that change. What can you do to prevent overeating at this time of year and gaining those extra pounds?
Change your expectations by planning what you will do ahead of time. On the morning of Thanksgiving, think about what the likely layout will be where you are having the meal. Have you been there before? Do you know what to expect to be on the table? If so, plan ahead. Make some decisions about what you will eat and how much. Promise yourself that you will not overeat. After all, itâs just one meal and ironically many people who overeat say theyâre not particularly fond of Thanksgiving food. They just get caught up in the collective binge mentality and the rest is history. If you plan ahead and carefully consider what to do instead of binging, you have a much better chance of controlling yourself and feeling good about your eating behavior afterwards.
Consider that while eating may be a significant and enjoyable part of holiday parties and gatherings, OVEREATING does not need to be. Try not to give yourself permission to overindulge. Letâs face itâŠeating is fun and enjoyable and is a large part of holiday merriment. However, there is no fun in feeling nauseas or uncomfortable just after the meal and guilty and self-deprecating hours later.
Donât starve yourself on Thanksgiving morning or on the day of a holiday party. This is one of the most common, yet foolish strategies people employ. The calories you give up by skipping breakfast and lunch usually pale in comparison to the calorie content of the evening binge at Thanksgiving or the holiday party. Instead, eat normally during the day which may actually help keep you from binging later. You are far more likely to control yourself if you are mostly full during the day rather than starving when you walk in the door of the party.
Consider making some eating compromises. Who said you have to have turkey only on Thanksgiving? Is pecan pie banned at other times of year? Consider having the foods that truly are once a year items rather than loading up on everything. And even then, you donât need five pounds of the special foods. If you only get to eat your grandmotherâs special stuffing once a year, you certainly shouldnât pass that up. However, I promise you that eating a ton of it will not make you happier than having two nice size tablespoons of the stuff. Again, plan ahead and make decisions earlier in the day.
Watch the booze. Alcohol causes our judgment to get a little fuzzy. You are going to be more successful controlling your behavior if your brain is firing on all cylinders. If you drink too much too early in the day, youâre going to have a tougher time sticking to whatever plan you created. Also, too much alcohol causes us to make other foolish decisions. There are enough unfortunate tragedies that happen this time of year. Make sure youâre not a part of one.
Iâm not suggesting in any way that you be a killjoy and I certainly donât believe that itâs necessary to avoid holiday parties or gatherings where food is available. By planning ahead, changing your expectations, and making a few specific eating compromises, you can truly have your cake and eat it too.
Dr. Huberman is a Clinical Psychologist with a practice in New York City. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. He is an Affiliate Psychologist at the NYU Langone Medical Center and NSLIJ-Lenox Hill Hospital. Dr. Huberman is a consulting psychologist to the NYU/Langone Weight Management Program. He is the author of the New Book âThrough Thick & Thin: The Emotional Journey of Weight Loss Surgery.â For more information, visit warrenhuberman.com.