It’s official. Holiday season is here.
Starting this week health conscious people everywhere are bracing themselves for two solid months of parties, feasts and festivities.
It can be overwhelming.
Even though my #1 philosophy is that life should be awesome and you shouldn’t restrict yourself from things you enjoy, it can be helpful to enter the holidays with a plan to keep your healthstyle more or less on track.
These are the steps I personally take to make sure I don’t begin the New Year trying to make amends for the holidays.
First and foremost maintain a mindset of growth and learning. This means remembering that your food choices don’t equal your value as a person, and staying positive even when things don’t go exactly as you plan.
The holidays are challenging for everyone on the eating front, and self-compassion goes a long way toward letting you come out healthy and happy on the other side.
Don’t let one or two frustrating events spoil the entire season.
PICK YOUR BATTLES
In the spirit of cultivating a growth mindset, be realistic about what you can and can’t tackle. While, “I’m not going to eat a cookie for the entire holidays” is unrealistic for most of us, “I’m not going to eat any cookies at the office” is entirely doable.
I recommend taking a good look at your calendar and evaluating which events are worth a bit of a food splurge. You can use whatever criteria you want for this, from the quality of the food to its sentimental value.
What’s important is that it’s worth it to you.
Two special occasions per month is a reasonable target. You can dial this slightly up or down depending on your goals and how important the holidays are to you, but if you’re celebrating multiple times a week it could be problematic.
Once you have chosen your truly special occasions, don’t worry about them anymore. Look forward to enjoying them guilt-free.
We’ll use the following steps to make sure the damage is minimal.
PLAN YOUR ATTACK
Now that you’ve chosen what is worth splurging on, you have also decided what isn’t. For me this is work-related events and meals shared with my side of the family (I love them, but they aren’t the greatest cooks).
When these are events that I can’t gracefully opt-out of, it’s important that I know what my plan will be before heading in.
Always remember that food isn’t the reason you’re attending, and try to focus on people and activities instead. That said, when planning for food, there are a few key factors to keep in mind:
For shorter, cocktail hour-type gatherings, my priorities are making sure I eat beforehand or making concrete dinner plans afterward. That way a glass of wine or two won’t trick me into believing that subpar food is my only option.
For longer events and dinners where escaping food is impossible, I optimize my food choices for health and make peace with the fact that this won’t be the most rewarding meal of my life.
In these cases, my number one priority is eating vegetables. I try to fill up on as many as I can, so at least the evening isn’t a net loss health-wise. My second priority is eating some kind of protein or meat, so I’m satisfied enough to avoid the uninspiring desserts that will inevitably appear later.
Finally, at events like this I stick to lower alcohol drinks (e.g. white wines, lighter beers) and completely avoid cocktails, which are often as sweet as soda. For me, cocktails are a splurge and I’ve already decided this event wasn’t worth it.
Executing your plan may be easier said than done. For instance, buffet-style meals can be particularly challenging for many people, as there are no clear boundaries to stop you from overeating.
If holiday events are difficult for you, chances are you fall victim to the same traps over and over again.
Do you skimp too much on dinner then lose it at the dessert table?
Do you eat a dozen hors d’oeuvres before the real meal even starts?
Try to anticipate these obstacles and set up an alternative course of action.
In the buffet example, the sheer number of options can often overwhelm our better judgement. Avoid this by committing beforehand to only eating one (satisfying) plate of food.
When it is time to serve yourself, examine the entire table of options before making your decisions, then choose the tastiest items you can find that are as healthy as possible. Once you’ve made your selections, eat them slowly and mindfully.
Setting up your alternative plan before the event prevents you from having to make decisions in the heat of the moment and reduces your reliance on willpower.
When planning your attack and anticipating the obstacles, it is absolutely essential that you are realistic about the situation and your abilities, or your plan will certainly fail.
I don’t know anybody who can make it through multiple hours of drinking on nothing but raw carrots and celery, so don’t make that your goal. Be smart about your strategy and honest about your limitations, and make sure that your plan will work in reality, not just in theory.
If you feel like you’re guessing about what your options will be, try to find out more about the event itself and what to expect.
If you aren’t confident about your ability to execute the best plan you can think of, consider recruiting a friend for more ideas and moral support.
TIGHTEN UP HOME COURT
Eliminating unintentional and totally not-worth-it splurges is a huge part of winning the holiday game. But even then there’s a lot of extra sugar to contend with.
That’s why during the holidays it is more important than ever to lean on your Home Court Habits to keep you on track.
Remember that you’ve already decided that your HCH are things that make your life awesome (right?). If you have enough impactful habits, you should normally be able to get away with doing “most of them, most of the time” and maintain your weight and health.
During the holidays make sure to maintain as many HCH as possible, and do “all of them, most of the time.”
This is the best possible thing you can use your willpower on during the holidays.
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CELEBRATE YOUR VICTORIES
Living healthfully isn’t a single challenge, but many small challenges that add up to big advantages.
Keep this in mind as you go through the holidays, and don’t forget to celebrate the small victories. This is important for a few reasons:
First, to form last habits it is essential that you associate positive feelings with healthy behaviors. Simply flexing your face muscles into a smiling position convinces your brain that good things are happening. So holding a smile on your face as you pass by the dessert table can make it easier for next time.
Second, focusing on each of your wins as you experience them gives you a feeling of progress, and makes your small actions more meaningful psychologically.
Feeling successful is far more motivating than “I wish I were thinner” or “I wish I had more willpower,” and can help you persevere down the stretch.
LEARN FROM YOUR SLIP-UPS
With many small challenges comes not just small victories, but likely a few small slip-ups as well.
If one of your plans of attack doesn’t quite work and you end up with three peppermint brownies down the hatch before you can say “processed food,” it isn’t the end of the world.
Instead of skipping your workout and eating a pint of ice cream in the bathtub to console yourself, acknowledge the incident as a miscalculation and ask what you could have done differently to prevent it.
And no, the answer isn’t “be a better person” or “be stronger in the face of temptation.” Instead ask what strategies you could have used to have avoided being put in that situation.
For instance, you may have not eaten enough during dinner and still been legitimately hungry afterward. Eating more protein or veggies could have given you the fuel you needed to make it through the evening.
Or maybe you didn’t realize that your favorite pastry chef was going to be catering this event and it suddenly switched from not-worth-it to totally-worth-it. Maybe you could have adopted mindful eating strategies instead of succumbing to the what-the-hell effect, and enjoyed a much smaller portion.
Whatever the issue, it is something that needs to be acknowledged and addressed or it will likely happen again.
ADAPT AND ADJUST
As you build your holiday hacking skills you are certain to experience many successes and many setbacks. This is called learning, and it is the only way to make long-term progress.
Every year your circumstances will be slightly different. You’ll have different obligations, you’ll move, change jobs, get married, get divorced, have kids, they’ll grow up, etc. Life keeps happening.
Your strategies will need to adapt to the changing times, but the lessons you learn each year will stay with you.
Take the longview to get the most joy and the most health out of every holiday season.
Originally published November 2017
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