By Dr. Adam Perlman, M.D.
The holiday season comes with a lot of indulgence -- and most of it is pure sugar in disguise (or not so disguised). You don't need anyone to tell you the problems over consumption can cause, but fact is that sweets, treats, and holiday desserts hold emotional significance and a whole lot of real estate, as they're usually part of longstanding family traditions and workplace customs (cookie swap!). The real concern I have is that over time, too much sugar can lead to weight gain, put you at risk for Type 2 diabetes, and impair your immune system.
The key to easing the struggle comes in three parts. First, it helps to sort out the thinking behind your holiday eating habits. Second, you need to give yourself concrete tools to help you manage opportunities for overindulgence. Finally, finding ways to support your efforts at balance will go a long way to keeping you in the zone of happy indulgence, instead of stuck in the miserable after effects of eating excess sugary foods.
Here are three ways to avoid that holiday sugar overdose.
1. Check in with your mind before you pick up the plate.
It's a good bet that a lot of sugar-laced overeating starts with your emotions, which are often on a hair trigger this time of year anyway. Also, let's face it: Eating feels good. When you're anxious or lonely, chronically busy or angry, it can take the edge off. It can soothe and distract you from emotions and thoughts.
But emotions don't have to drive you to that platter of tea breads. The moment you feel a strong, overwhelming emotion, pause. Take a breath. Name what you're feeling, and then pin down the thoughts behind it. Are you angry... because you think you shouldn't have been saddled with organizing the neighborhood potluck again? Are you panicked... because you think that one difficult relative is going to make dinner awful for you?
Facing these hard thoughts actually gives you distance from them. Now you can replace them with thoughts that support you instead. For example, I don't want to do the potluck alone. I will pass it off or find help. Or, I really don't want to spend time with my relative, but I do want to be with my family. I am going to make a plan for my response if he starts up.
You may not find the perfect turnaround in the moment, but you will have interrupted the negative loop in your mind and given yourself the chance to leave the sugar on the table.
2. Prep your wellness toolbox
The upside to holiday sugar indulgence is that there are quite a few practical methods for sidestepping sweets. Here are three of the best.
Feed yourself well. You're not going to be at parties or work gatherings all the time, so make sure the rest of your meals count. Plan out a week of breakfast high in lean protein and healthy fats such as coconut oil, flaxseed, and olive oil. Pick up fish for a couple nights' worth of dinners (and cook it!). Make a full water bottle your best friend (and drink often!).
Get rest. Sleeping an adequate number of hours at night is ideal. Research has shown that lack of sleep affects appetite signaling in the brain and can ultimately lead to overeating and weight gain. But if that's tough, schedule plain old quiet time to let your body and emotions rest. Set aside a half-hour or hour in your weekly calendar for nothing but relaxing, whether that's a walk outside or an episode of your favorite show. Nourishing your body with rest helps lower your stress, so you're less likely to get triggered when the tin of peanut brittle comes out.
Bake smart. If you're the one whipping up the treats, look for ways to reduce the amount of sugar in your recipes. For example, many recipes can lose a quarter cup of sugar with little to no effect on taste or texture. You can also find inspiration at websites such as againstallgrain.com or chocolatecoveredkatie.com that offer healthful versions of dessert recipes.
(Learn about mindful eating practices and how they can help you this holiday season.)
3. Celebrate your efforts
You've put energy into balancing indulgence and health, so you deserve to acknowledge and appreciate that work. A daily affirmation -- a positive statement about yourself or how you'd like to be -- is a good way to encourage you to keep at it. Your affirmation might read, "I am making choices that support my health and happiness," or "I am able to enjoy sugary treats without losing control around them." When you treat your body and mind with loving care, you are able to be more present with the people and situations around you. More than chocolate bark or gingerbread, that's the sign of a sweet holiday.
Learn more useful information about stress and your health! Pre-order our forthcoming book, meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, co-authored by meQuilibrium CEO Jan Bruce, Adam Perlman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, and Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer.
Adam Perlman, M.D., is a co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of meQuilibrium, and the Executive Director for Duke Integrative Medicine. Dr. Perlman is a recognized leader in the field of Integrative Medicine and respected researcher and educator in the field of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) and wellness.