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How Not to Blow a Diet Over the Holidays

Strategies and goals


It’s one thing to maintain willpower in normal circumstances, in an environment you can control, after a lot of practice. It’s usually much more difficult to stick to your chosen path when circumstances change: travel, holidays, restaurants, vacations, celebrations, moves, new jobs, and so on. Thanksgiving through Christmas is like a parade of these kinds of issues, at least for anyone working on weight loss. Yet some people get through the holidays maintaining or reducing their weight, in the same way some people can go to restaurants full of unhealthy foods and find the good choices there. How does this happen?

The information in this post is specifically about weight loss, but these tactics work for any kind of challenge to willpower, and apply to sustaining any habit through a hard time. The tactics are 1) commit yourself, 2) get informed, 3) make a plan, 4) throw away illusions, 5) enlist help, and 6) resist attacks.

Commit Yourself
You can either let yourself go on the one hand, consuming huge quantities of food, feeling overstuffed, gaining weight, and possibly feeling unhappy about it; or you can commit to eating modestly and expending a lot of effort, avoiding a lot of foods you’ll probably really want to eat, being conspicuous, feeling much better than everyone else after the meal, and then maybe marveling at your success.

If you do want to eat a lot, probably no one will stop you–but if you’re deciding to eat healthily, you’ll need to commit yourself completely. Habit and tradition are generally too strong to be overcome without real resolve.

Get Informed
What foods will be at the event you’re going to? Which ones might be good choices for you to eat? Find out the calorie counts (or exchanges, etc.) for each one. Whatever system you use to track what you eat, apply it to the things you expect to see at the event you’re going to, so that you know for certain whether or not a sliver of pumpkin pie fits in your plans, or whether the potatoes or the cranberry sauce are a good idea. If you don’t have a system for tracking what you eat, you’ll almost certainly need one.

Make a Plan
If you expect trouble over the holidays, that’s an immediate indication that the habits you already have probably aren’t up to the challenge. So you’ll need to make specific plans for behavior–plans more advanced than a general intention to eat less. Willpower is not a vague energy that you can draw from the æther to apply to different situations by “just doing better”; it’s using mental tools to steer yourself into acting differently than you usually would.

What will you eat? How much will you eat? What will you do if the food you’re expecting to see isn’t there? What will you not eat? What will you say when someone tries to urge you to eat it, since after all, “it’s a holiday” or “it’s just this once” or “Martha made it herself” or “it doesn’t count”? What anti-hunger techniques will you use? (See “24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry” for some options.)

If you want better choices for food, considering making or bringing them yourself. Eating separate food from everyone else takes a little courage and makes you stand out. But it also demonstrates that you’re serious and committed.

Remember that you’ll need to plan for each event you go to, or else make rules that will keep you on the path for all events. It especially helps to have an emergency plan for unexpected events, like when someone brings cake into the office or you’re invited to dinner on short notice.

Throw Away Illusions
You may not need to hear these things, but in case you do: when you’re trying to lose weight, everything you eat “counts.” Your biology won’t care that it’s Thanksgiving. If you don’t get to eat something that looks good to you, you’re not owed any compensation. You don’t get any do-overs except that you can try again the next time an event comes up. Some people at the event may try to make you feel guilty for not eating; if they don’t have to haul the resulting fat cells around, though, they don’t get a vote.

Enlist Help
If you tell people in advance that you’re losing weight and really don’t want to gain it back over during the holidays, they have more of a chance to prepare themselves and to assist and support you. Walking in the door with your own meal in Tupperware when some one’s already gone to the trouble of making your favorite pie can cause trouble both with your relationships and your eating habits. Giving notice in advance can make it easier for others to help.

Not that everyone will necessarily want to help. Some people may feel that your work on your weight is an implied criticism of their own weight. Others may mistakenly think that trying to lose weight means that you think you “need” to lose weight to be a valuable person rather than that you’re just a valuable person who just wants to lose weight. Some people may be offended that you don’t stick to traditions or don’t eat what they’ve prepared. You’ll have to decide whether it’s more important to have their approval or to stick with your own priorities. It’s very easy to go with the approval; that’s the popular choice.

Resist Attacks
It’s very likely that someone will offer you food that doesn’t fit your plans–and maybe even try to insist. In addition, foods have a nefarious and evil way of offering themselves. Plan how you will resist these attacks and remind yourself that they are attacks when they occur (not in the sense of someone else intending to cause harm, but in the sense of posing immediate and real danger to your well-being). It sometimes helps to recognize the attraction before fighting it, for instance saying mentally “Yes, I could have some more mashed potatoes with gravy, and I would probably enjoy them. I ‘m just choosing not to.”

Specific ways to resist attacks are listed in that article on hunger I mentioned.

Holidays and special events aren’t easy to navigate. If, like me, you’re walking into the den of the beast with the intention of coming out lighter on the other side, good luck! Today I weigh 182 pounds. I’ll update this post in early January to let you know how it came out for me: I expect to have lost at least a few pounds. (Added later: want to know how it went? Read the follow-up post.)

Photo by Donna Grayson

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24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry

Strategies and goals

Midnight eating binge

While hunger evolved as a system for telling us when we need nourishment, in modern times our feelings of hunger can often get out of step with our actual bodily needs–especially for those of us who are trying to get more fit. When you’re getting enough nutrition but your body is still crying out for food, these techniques can help make hunger a non-issue. Each of these tactics is based on scientific research and/or experience of people who have lost and kept off substantial amounts of weight. Some may sound weak or unlikely, but try any that you haven’t tried already, since many are much more potent than they seem.

Remember that feelings of hunger are often temporary: if you can last a little while, often they will go away.

If you’re interested in finding out where hunger comes from, read this recent article.

Rethink the hunger
1. Remind yourself that if you have enough nourishment and are trying to lose weight, hunger is a good sign: it’s often an indication that your fat stores are going to be raided.
2. Visualize what the hunger will help you achieve.
3. Accept the hunger. Reconceive it as not painful, but healthy.
4. Enjoy toughing it out; take pleasure in being contrary. Tell the hunger, “Is that all you got? Come on, bring it!”
5. If your hunger is arising because you’re upset, use idea repair techniques to detect and fix the problem ideas.
6. Focus your attention on things other than food. Thinking about food will tend to make you more hungry.

Distract yourself
7. Start doing something really engrossing that will take up your attention.
8. Get into a conversation.

9. Eat something very healthy and low in calories, like celery; an apple; or very low-calorie, fiber-rich crackers. If you don’t have anything like that handy, go buy something that fits that description. (Do not pick up a bag of M&M’s while you’re out.)
10. Chew some gum (if you’re in a place where that wouldn’t be inappropriate). You won’t be able to eat (or much need to) while the gum lasts.
11. Drink tea or another no-calorie/very low-calorie drink (preferably with no cream, sugar, etc.).
12. Drink water. Every time you feel like taking a bite of something, take a swig of water instead. In addition to providing a substitute for eating, water also gives you a temporary feeling of fullness.

Create limits
13. Start an activity during which you can’t eat (e.g., working on your car, cleaning a bathroom).
14. Go to a place where you can’t eat (e.g., a library).
15. Physically remove any inappropriate foods: give them away, throw them out, or simply put them somewhere hard to get at.
16. Choose specific times during the day when you’ll eat, and make a rule that you won’t eat outside those times. While this may not work perfectly, if you get in the habit of short-circuiting food deliberations with the thought “Nope, not time to eat right now!” you can take your mind off food, which lessens the urge to eat.

Change your physiology (immediate techniques)
17. Resolve not to eat anything for just a short time (say, 10-20 minutes). This can work especially well if you’ve just eaten something, as it takes a little while for feelings of satiety to set in after you’ve eaten. Other kinds of emotional and physiological hunger triggers, too, are likely to go away after only a short time.
18. Get some very brief exercise: jumping jacks, dancing for a couple of songs, push-ups, crunches, a few minutes on an elliptical trainer or treadmill, etc. Research seems to show that even a little exercise can help fight feelings of hunger.
19. Go for a short walk: this supplies the benefits of exercise and distraction, tends to improve mood (due to both the exercise and the change of scene), and gets you physically away from the food … just don’t end your walk at a bakery.
20. Avoid sugary foods: eating foods with a high sugar content can cause your body to deploy extra insulin. The insulin cleans out all the sugars in your bloodstream, causing a temporary shortage that sends signals to your brain: “Dangerously low on sugar! Need Twinkies, stat!” This can create a vicious cycle and is probably one of the factors that encourages binges.
21. Eat something low in calories but high in protein, like nonfat yogurt or canned tuna. Protein appears to lessen feelings of hunger both in the short-term and throughout the day; for instance see this article.

Change your physiology (longer-term techniques)
22. Exercise on a daily basis: this can raise your metabolism, yet can actually help suppress hunger for up to 24 hours. Doing 30-60 minutes of vigorous exercise when you’re actually hungry will tend to suppress the hunger while you exercise in addition to giving you the metabolism boost. Exercising twice a day is ideal for helping to minimize hunger.
23. Eat in moderate amounts: avoid eating a lot at any one time. Doing this consistently over time when it has not been done in the past can help reduce stomach size (meaning the organ itself, not the fat over it). Binges tend to keep the stomach at a larger size.
24. Eat a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, and fiber. Fiber helps you feel more full with fewer calories consumed, while protein helps minimize physiological hunger demands.

If you find yourself facing hunger often, link to or print this post and read it through when you’re feeling hungry. If you’re still hungry by the end of it and no solution jumps out at you, try something that’s new to you or that has worked for you before from what you’ve just read.

Image by Corrie Howell

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