Holiday events are teeming with classic comfort foods: mac and cheese, candied yams and jelly doughnuts, to name a few. But while they may pump you full of nostalgia, these decadent dishes — which tend to be high in fat and sugar — can also easily lead to holiday weight gain if you're not careful.
Why We Overeat at Holidays
When we're surrounded by our loved ones and the fireplace has us feeling all warm and cozy, it's tougher to turn down these less-than-nutritious foods, even when we know they're not in line with our weight-loss goals. Maybe it's the celebratory vibes or the mindless way we shove food into our pieholes at parties, but we're prone to consuming more calories with friends and family than when dining alone, according to an August 2019 review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
And while norms may permit overindulging in these festive social settings, you might be trying to avoid the infamous holiday weight gain this year or just eat in a way that makes you feel your best. However, it might feel like there's always someone peering over your shoulder and critiquing your choices.
These are "food pushers" — the people who make comments like, "You're hardly eating, I'll fix you another plate so you don't waste away" or "Don't you like my casserole? You didn't finish it!" Chances are, you know one. Some go by "Grandma," and others are disguised as coworkers or even good friends.
While many of these comments may be well-intentioned, extra attention on what's on your plate can cause friction that you'd just as soon leave at the door. So, here's how to politely decline food you're not in the mood to eat — without ending up on anyone's naughty list.
1. Remember: You Call the Shots
While it may be uncomfortable sometimes, you are the one ultimately responsible for your decisions and actions. If you decide that you're going to do something (like avoid foods that make you feel crappy), you have the power to not let anyone else derail you from that. Social pressure can range from mildly awkward to downright unpleasant, but unless your grandma is threatening to cut you out of her will (and even then), no one is making you do anything.
"We don't have control over how people react to the choices we make. They may have judgments, and some may feel free to share their opinions even if their feedback isn't solicited," says therapist Michelle P. Maidenberg, PhD, president and clinical director of Westchester Group Works and author of Free Your Child from Overeating: A Handbook for Helping Kids and Teens. But if someone's pressuring you to eat, you always have the right to set boundaries around conversations dealing with food.
Be assertive and make it clear that you're confident about what's best for you, says Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do. That said, it's also possible to stand your ground using a little finesse. For example, take an appreciative approach and acknowledge the person's concern. Morin suggests saying something like, "I appreciate that you're worried that I can't have fun without eating sweets, but I assure you, I enjoy life more when I'm making healthier choices for myself."
And if your friend or family member is still unsatisfied with your answer, that's on them — not on you. "If all else fails, you can always take a break if the situation feels really stressful," says Alexis Conason, PsyD, a New York-based clinical psychologist and creator of The Anti-Diet Plan. Get some fresh air, go for a quick walk, take a bathroom break. "Sometimes just removing yourself from the environment and taking a minute to center yourself can be really helpful," she says.
"Imagine yourself making good food choices, being assertive and feeling happy. Spend a few minutes thinking about how you'll feel at the end of the night if you make healthy decisions."
2. Go in With a Plan
Failing to plan is planning to fail, right? So, go into your holiday meals with a strategy. If you're anxious about holiday parties and the social pressure to eat, mentally preparing yourself beforehand can be helpful. One way to do that is by visualizing positive outcomes, says Terry Lyles, PhD, life-performance expert and author of Performance Under Pressure: Crack Your Personal Stress Code and Live the Life of Your Dreams. Visualizing a scenario where things go just right can increase your chances of success. In other words, if you can dream it, you can do it.
Morin agrees: "Imagine yourself making good food choices, being assertive and feeling happy. Spend a few minutes thinking about how you'll feel at the end of the night if you make healthy decisions, but also think about how you'll handle challenges throughout the evening like someone pressuring you to eat more."
Consider devising an "if-then" plan to help you overcome common obstacles, she says. So, if your aunt insists you sample her famous pumpkin pie, then you will know how to respond in a way that feels right to you. Role-playing a few scenarios can be part of your prep, adds Maidenberg.
For instance, if you're anticipating a full-court press from your fam about eating, try generating a few positive responses in advance. You might say, "Please don't think my refusal means I don't value all the hard work you put into making those brownies," or, "I appreciate you baking this for all of us, and it is so hard for me to say no, but I need to at this time. Thanks for understanding."
To ease your anxiety, you might even try journaling in the weeks before the holiday event. Write about how your best-possible future self will handle uncomfortable or awkward situations. In fact, a study of university students found that jotting down self-reflective thoughts and growth goals resulted in greater academic success, per research published in the December 2014 issue of the British Journal of Educational Psychology.
3. 'Tis the Season for Self-Care
Whether it's infuriating flight delays, extra expenses (hello, Christmas presents!) or frustrating family members, the holidays can bring up a slew of stress. And when you're dealing with heightened levels of emotions, they can trigger unhealthy decisions, especially when it comes to food, says Morin, adding, "You'll be less likely to act on emotions if you're thinking rationally and logically."
So, how can you stay clear-headed during the hectic holiday season? Start de-stressing by scheduling in some self-care every day. Make time for things that feel good in your body, says Conason. Yoga, meditation and deep breathing are all stress-relieving strategies that can help you survive the hustle and bustle of the holidays — including when family and friends comment on your eating.
Plus, you must prioritize your pillow. With all the planning and parties, your sleep may be suffering, but catching quality zzzs is essential to staving off stress, especially during the holidays. Because, to make matters worse, you're more likely to crave sweet and fatty foods (which are aplenty at holiday parties and potlucks) when you're sleep-deprived, according to a study published October 2019 in eLife.
4. Keep Your 'Why' in Mind
Even when you've committed to a healthy weight-loss goal, being in a room with rowdy relatives who have opposing opinions can be challenging. Rather than focus on what others say, reinforce your own convictions. "Knowing and remembering your 'why' is the key to goal-setting success because it feeds your motivation and passion to continue under difficult and high-pressure circumstances," says Lyles.
Maidenberg agrees: "You need to remind yourself regularly why you made the decision to invest in your health." Was it to improve your blood pressure? To enhance your endurance? To have the energy to play with your kids? "Identifying core values relating to health will help you to continually find the insight into why you want to continue your practice over the long run," she says.
5. Be Strategic About Seating Arrangements
During the holidays, staying focused on your healthy weight-loss journey can be tough, especially if you're flying solo. Joining forces with a buddy offers a sense of camaraderie and can strengthen your resolve. Case in point: People tend to keep off the pounds when they participate in supervised weight-loss programs with friends or family, according to a 2016 research review published in Patient Preference and Adherence.
That's why it's important to find your tribe when you're attending a holiday party. In other words, hang around friends or family who support your goals and can be helpful role models, says Maidenberg.
"Choose to surround yourself with people who are less likely to create temptations for you," adds Morin, explaining that your pals can greatly influence the choices you make. Conversely, "sitting next to people who overindulge or choose foods higher in calories may tempt you to partake."
Even thinking about where to sit at a table can make a difference when it comes to making healthier food choices, says Maidenberg. "Appetizers and bread baskets are usually placed in the center, so strategize to sit on the outer part of the table."
"When you work to neutralize some of these foods, they won't have the same strong emotional pull on you. It really does make the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving just another food."
6. Loosen the Reins
You may arrive with all the resolve in the world, only to find it weakening as Grandma unveils her legendary lemon meringue pie. Whatever choices you decide to make are fine — whether that ends up being sticking to your guns or loosening the reins a bit.
"Part of the reason that people have such a hard time around the holidays is that they make super strict rules for themselves," says Conason. "Sometimes, the more we try to control our eating, the more out of control it feels, so we have to let go of that a little bit."
In other words, if you want a slice (or two) of Granny's lemon meringue, have it. It's important to give yourself permission to indulge, and then be present when you're eating. Most importantly, listen to what your body needs and take pleasure in the taste, says Conason. When you slow down and savor every bite, you can really enjoy your food. And when that happens, and you feel satisfied, you're less likely to overdo it.
"It sounds paradoxical for people struggling with overeating, but I also recommend they take home leftovers to have these foods available at a later time," she says. Why? Part of the reason we binge around the holidays relates to our "now or never" mentality. We see these dishes as special — something that only comes around once a year — and when something is scarce, we want it more.
"We have to find ways to work with that perception of scarcity because it's false," says Conason, adding, "We can actually have pumpkin pie whenever we want it." Realizing that you can have a slice of pumpkin pie in July can ease your anxiety around not having access to it for another year (and wolfing down the whole thing).
"When you work to neutralize some of these foods, they won't have the same strong emotional pull on you," says Conason. "It really does make the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving just another food."
The takeaway? Eat (and savor) the pie at your holiday party if you really want to — and in July, too!
- British Journal of Educational Psychology: “Self‐reflection, growth goals, and academic outcomes: A qualitative study.”
- eLife: “Olfactory connectivity mediates sleep-dependent food choices in humans.”
- Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism: “Napping Reverses the Salivary Interleukin-6 and Urinary Norepinephrine Changes Induced by Sleep Restriction.”
- Patient Preference and Adherence: “Weight loss intervention adherence and factors promoting adherence: a meta-analysis.”
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “A systematic review and meta-analysis of the social facilitation of eating.”