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Don’t Let the Holiday Blues Derail Your Diet

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 rich foods 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 nutrition) intact — without depriving yourself or overdoing comfort foods. Your mental health is an essential part of your well-being. Talk to your doctor or therapist if you are consistently feeling low. If you have a condition such as depression, you’ll need treatment, not just the lifestyle ideas shared here.

“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, 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 prophecy.

“You have set yourself up,” Eliot says. “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 is involved in weight loss — even how well you handle 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.”

When you’re feeling sorry for yourself, do something about it, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice.

For example, if you don’t have an invitation to a holiday dinner, make your own plans. Wallin suggests volunteering or getting in touch with people you haven’t talked to in a while. “Just a call to say ‘How are you?’ is very much appreciated at the other end,” Wallin says.

If you feel self-conscious about your weight — for example, about how you think family members may react when they see you — give yourself a reality check. “They’re not going to reject you,” Wallin says. “Do you reject people based on how much they weigh?”

Don’t banish all your favorite holiday foods, either.

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

Make sure you get plenty of rest. Too little sleep is a form of stress.

“Stress wears you down during the day. When you’re tired, you lose your willpower and you get into arguments easily,” Wallin says. You’re also more prone to overeat or to feel the holiday blues.

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

“If you feel self-conscious, you’re better to deflect it right away,” Willen says. “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,” Wallin says. “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 2 hours.

When you’re feeling low and ready to blow your diet, give yourself a short cooling off period.

“When we feel sorry for ourselves, we rationalize pigging out,” Wallin says. She suggests waiting 10 minutes, doing something else during that time, and then see how you feel about the food you had intense cravings for just a few minutes earlier.  “You might be surprised,” Wailin says. “You may not want it.”

After you’ve had that holiday treat, get moving, advises Sheah Rarback, 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. “If you get out and walk, you won’t crave food as much,” Rarback says.

Exercise is a major strategy for 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.”

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,” Rarback says. “Don’t have a big bowl of cereal, bagel, or toast. Have a protein meal for breakfast, like yogurt or eggs.”

“They’re good for you all year, but if you feel prone to holiday depression, make sure you’re getting enough,” Rarback says.

She also recommends grazing.

“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.”

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