Four Ways to Cure “Holiday Eating Syndrome”

plate of colorfully decorated cookies for Christmas and the holidays

(Photo Lori Greig / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By Ari Snaevarsson, Features Editor

A question I often get revolves around eating strategies for the holidays. At first, this perplexed me. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the primary holidays we think about when we think about stuffing ourselves with food and the tryptophan-induced food coma. In my mind, even if you were to go batshit crazy twice a year food-wise, would it really be that big of a deal in the long run? But the more I think about it, and the more I hear from clients and others about their experiences, the more it makes sense that this would be a major concern for some. First off, it is generally not just the holiday meal(s) itself/themselves that are the issue; the feeling of going from “eating well” to “pigging out” can throw a wrench into one’s psychological soundness and, worst case scenario, set them up for a binge eating period. This is the reason the whole “eat clean during the week, ‘cheat’ during the weekends” idea is such a failure for so many people. Secondly, the holiday meals are just an extreme example of an already prevalent phenomenon that recurs in smaller forms throughout the year. Whether it’s the spontaneous Applebee’s trip with the family or a less prominent religious holiday that involves eating together, these instances happen quite frequently. It is no wonder so many people worry about this when trying to “clean up” their diet.

Now, my immediate thoughts here are roughly: Treat your body kindly, do not beat yourself up for eating “too much,” and embrace the 80/20 rule in terms of moderation. However, it is not always this simple, especially for someone who has struggled with this on a clinical level, something I have seen personally having helped patients with active eating disorders. These on-and-off episodes can really rock someone and keep them from living a life of moderation where food can be viewed as a social connector and form of sustenance, rather than a series of moral decisions. So, here are my top four tips. Hope these help!

Do not “damage control”

This has got to be the most common approach people take to this diet dilemma, and it pains me to see it. Sometimes people even understand superficially how damaging of a tool this is, and yet they continue to do it in little, possibly subconscious ways and screw themselves over.

“Damage control” refers to, either before or after the eating bout, reducing one’s intake or upping one’s energy output in an attempt to mitigate the “damage” from how much one will eat. There is the obvious problem that this just further reinforces the black-or-white thinking we are trying to avoid in the first place, but there are some other issues at play as well. First, this robs one of the supposed joys of the holiday. It’s devastating to think a day meant to celebrate family and time together can turn into a nightmare of potential “screw-ups” that provokes so much anxiety. Rather than enjoying the holidays, individuals trying to “damage control” often end up exercising profusely and eating troublingly small amounts of food the week or days before. By the time Christmas dinner comes, they are starving and tired and probably pretty moody. This leads to borderline or full-blown binge eating, which means ignoring the rest of the family and eating in a shameful way all to elicit the same feelings of worthlessness that will end up spiraling back into the restrictive mindset you instituted prior.

The second problem to bear in mind is that this is simply not scientifically sound. Without fixating on the actual number of calories you’ll be eating at dinner, let me just say that it is nowhere near as big or as “detrimental” as you might think. Even if you were to have considerably more than you would normally eat for dinner, that singular meal is going to have a minimal effect on body composition at the end of the day. The mental energy and willpower necessary to heavily restrict food just in preparation for a slightly larger-than-normal meal is not worth it at all.

What do you do instead? Eat normally. Sure, don’t spoil your appetite before dinner too much, but other than that, I highly encourage spending the time before and after this meal eating like you normally would. You can rest easy knowing you are eating according to your body’s needs and not freaking out about calories or “pigging out.”

Focus on the social aspects

While the food itself at Thanksgiving and Christmas is pretty damn good, the real reason for the season is good company. Try to remember why you are all gathered together, and really enjoy that. Now, this seems like pretty empty advice to someone who expects to be fixated on their food intake at the time of the meal, so let me lay out some quick tips to give you an idea of how to make this work for you.
First, you can make sure you are participating in conversations. This means, to go a step back further, ideally spending time with family you are close with. And if that means cancelling on that part of your extended family you had planned on eating with who you barely talk to and do not enjoy the presence of, so be it! That is a million times better than conjoining the feelings of discomfort with your eating quantity with the feelings of social discomfort. Spend time with people you actually enjoy, and be talkative and friendly.

Another idea is to have everyone move to the living room, or some equivalent, after dinner and before dessert to talk more. Here, without the distracting food present, people will have one another’s undivided attention and can have a nice, relaxing time. You need not sit there with the pumpkin pie on the table staring you down while trying to ignore it.

Take a second to relax before your second serving

Seemingly obvious at first, this is an important tool for managing your hunger/fullness levels. The old adage about waiting five minutes after eating to digest and assess your hunger is completely true. This is even more so the case when your satiety signals are blunted by the social atmosphere. What I mean by that is, as you are following Tip #2 and engaging in lively conversation about Bitcoin IRAs with your grandfather, your brain is not fully processing the feedback mechanisms from satiety hormones, such as leptin. This makes it necessary to wait a second after your first serving to let these signals catch up to you (and to let the immediate stages of digestion take place).
You need not set an exact time to wait, but make sure, in this timeframe, to check in and see how you are feeling. If you could totally go for another full serving, go for it! If you are not completely sure, just grab your two to three favorite food items that are being served. If you are feeling full, don’t eat. Sounds simple, but in the heat of food anxiety, it is not always so.

Never eat past fullness

This transitions us nicely into the final point, which is to never eat past fullness. Again, this is obvious on the surface, but it is also arguably the most ignored piece of advice in the nutrition world (if we combine the tip to always eat past hunger). While I do have some issues with the traditional method of intuitive eating that assumes our bodies know exactly what they need and when they need it, there are some nuggets of truth worth considering. If you just take the time to check in after eating and assess your fullness, you will be doing yourself a world of good.

It seems to be cute and trendy to joke about how stuffed we get during the holidays, but this is not a normal thing to do to yourself. Granted, some people do not suffer from the toxic diet cycle thoughts that make binge eating so dangerous, and for them, this (while still metabolically unhealthy in an acute manner) is not such a big problem. But for those of us who have the quality of our diet on our mind constantly, this is a slippery slope. The feeling of eating enough to reach actual pain is part of the binge-restrict cycle, even at subclinical levels. This is what spurs on the desire to “take it easy” the next day, code word for “heighten our self-judgment.”

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Author: Ari Snaevarsson

Ari Snaevarsson '17 is a Health Sciences major and Religious Studies minor, and he is the Features Editor of The Gettysburgian. He competes in bodybuilding and powerlifting and has an immense passion for dissecting the habit psychology at play in people's dieting attempts. Outside of reading and bedroom DJ-ing, he has previously maintained a health/fitness blog that also followed nutrition news, No Fluff Strength.

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