Ten Tips for Battling Food (and Family) Over the Holidays

December 14, 2012

Ten Tips for Battling Food (and Family) Over the Holidays

'Tis the season ready or not! The holiday season can be one of the most joyful times of the year with its dazzling colors, familiar music, social gatherings, and yes, food, food and more food! For those who have recently lost a significant amount of weight following WLS or have remained serious throughout the year about managing the healthy weight they have sustained since having WLS, the food-infested holiday season can present physical and emotional challenges.

For at least five solid weeks, food is even more ubiquitous than usual in our eating-obsessed society. It's almost impossible to avoid fanciful confections almost anywhere you go from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. Cookies, candy, fudge, and a host of other homemade delights in the break room at the office. Gift baskets abounding with fruits, nuts, and bottles of apple cider arrive at the doorstep. Samples of gooey baked goods with sparkling decorations are handed out from kiosks in the grocery store. And bubbly libations accompany the gourmet delicacies served at every office and neighborhood social gathering.

For people who have had WLS and are serious about maintaining a healthy weight, the fact that the average American gains 7 to 12 pounds throughout the holiday season, can evoke strong feelings of anxiety.

Another anxiety-producing holiday stressor can be the family gathering. Most of us spend time with relatives during the holiday season. Like food, there are lots of varieties of families; some food and some families are healthy and others are not! Regardless of the emotional health of one's family, nearly all family holiday gatherings revolve around a meal, featuring time-honored secret family recipes and dishes that aunts, uncles, and cousins eagerly await all year long.

At no other time of year are there so many triggers that have the potential to steer off course those who have used food as a way to deal with emotions. In her brilliant, practical book, The Beck Diet Solution, Dr. Judith Beck notes several categories of triggers that can ultimately lead to eating. Three of these categories are emotional, biological, and environmental.

Emotional, biological and environmental triggers

Your family has decided to have Thanksgiving dinner at your Grandma Smith's house this year. You haven't been to that house in nearly a dozen years, since moving out of state.

When you were a child, you adored spending time at your grandma's house. She is the person who taught you about gardening, how to sew, and how to bake. It's hard to think about Grandma Smith without recalling the smell of fresh bread wafting throughout the house.

As soon as you walk in the door, the smell of her homemade biscuits mingled with the traditional aroma of the turkey and dressing takes over your entire being.

Before you can turn and walk toward the kitchen, you see Cousin Sally. Sally was the mean cousin when you were kids. She called you fatty Patty and always tattled to the adults when you did anything wrong. You are assaulted by her booming voice, Hey, there, fatty Patty! What have you done to yourself? You're not fat anymore!

You wish you could just punch her, but refrain from doing so as Aunt Cindy wraps you in a bear hug. That smell! Her perfume. It takes you back to the time you ate three pieces of her birthday cake before dinner. Her husband, Uncle Bill, had screamed at you for what seemed like an hour, but Aunt Cindy had wrapped you up in a hug then like she was doing now and she was wearing that same scent!

You finally make it into the living room and see the old blue rocker that you and Grandma sat in countless evenings while she read to you. Your eyes mist with tears. However, your thoughts are interrupted by the angry sounds of two male voices coming from the next room. They were at it again - your twin uncles. They never got along well and used to get into fistfights, scaring you when you were a child. You would take a bowl of Grandma's homemade cookies and hide in the closet upstairs until they would leave. Just the sound of their harsh tones made you turn and look for a sweet treat to take your mind off the fear you felt, even now as an adult.

There are lots of triggers in this story with potential for thoughts and feelings that could lead to eating as a coping response. Emotional triggers include reminiscing on the happy memories of spending time with Grandma in the garden, while sewing, and when baking in the kitchen. Cousin Sally's name-calling would certainly trigger an emotional response, as would the memory of Uncle Bill screaming at a young Patty who ate Aunt Sally's birthday cake.

Biological triggers in this scenario would be the sight and smell of the food when Patty walked into Grandma's house. Salivating at the thought or actual smell of the food is also a biological trigger. The sound of angry voices producing anxiety is another example of a biological trigger, as is the smell of Aunt Cindy's perfume.

The blue rocking chair in the living room would be an example of an environmental trigger. The closet upstairs where Patty hid when she was a child is also an environmental trigger.

Triggers and Emotional Eating

Songs often evoke strong emotions. When you hear a song that played at your high school prom where you slow danced with your first love, you experience the joyful emotions you did when you were in that high school gymnasium-turned-ballroom. Holidays, and especially family holiday gatherings, similarly evoke strong emotions. For an emotional eater, this can lead to high calorie disasters. In the scenario above, Patty experienced a range of emotions based on in-the-moment triggers and intensified by memories from the past.

Emotional eaters often turn to food when they are experiencing emotions, sometimes as a way to avoid unpleasant feelings. It may be tempting for Patty to grab an entire pie off the counter and run to the upstairs closet to gobble the pie down in an attempt to get away from the hurt of Cousin Sally's rude remark, to forget about the smell of Aunt Cindy's perfume and the memory of being severely scolded by Uncle Tim years ago, and to quiet the sound of her twin uncles' arguing.

Triggers are powerful. In order to make it safely through this minefield of eating triggers during the holiday season, a person needs to have a plan in place ahead of time  and then they need to utilize the plan throughout the season!

The following ten tips can also help you prepare ahead of time for dealing in a healthy way if you are overwhelmed by the urge to eat after being triggered at the family holiday gathering. (You can use these to safely navigate the holiday trays in office break rooms, at neighborhood social gatherings, and any other place you are deluged by tempting holiday goodies!)

1.) Anticipate triggers. Think about situations you are likely to encounter throughout the holiday season that pose threats to your healthy eating habits. Make a list of probable triggers you will encounter at your family holiday gatherings and use the following steps to deal with them in healthy ways.

2.) Visualize healthy responses to triggers. Instead of responding to triggers in an unhealthy way (yelling, arguing, eating), start preparing now to respond to them in a healthy way by visualizing yourself calmly walking away from arguments. Imagine yourself walking outside and taking a few minutes for yourself to regroup before returning to the situation. Picture yourself finding a place to call a supportive friend and talking about how you're feeling. All of these healthy responses will keep you away from the high calorie options you may have turned to in the past.

3.) Learn quick relaxation techniques. When we encounter triggers, we often become tense, anxious, scared, or angry. In a highly emotional state, you are more likely to react rather than respond. Reacting may mean mindless eating of empty calories. If you are able to utilize a simple, quick relaxation tool, you will be better able to respond to triggers in a healthy, rational manner. One example of a simple relaxation technique is to very slowly breathe in and out 12 times. You can do this in a room full of people and no one will even know! Another simple technique is to slowly count to 10, 20, or 100 however long it takes you to feel calm enough to respond in a healthy way. Get away from the crowd and mentally note ten things you are grateful for. This will definitely improve your frame of mind and you can resume your activities with a better outlook, a sure defense against harmful overeating.

4.) Remind yourself why. In preparing for the holiday gatherings, write answers to these questions and have it on your smartphone or an index card to read if you feel yourself getting overwhelmed emotionally and/or feel tempted to eat things you will regret later:

a) What are the negative consequences of eating unhealthy foods and of overeating?
b) What are the reasons I decided to lose weight and improve my health habits?
c) What are the benefits thus far of losing weight and improving my health habits?

5.) Say to yourself, I made up my mind! When you're aware that your desire to eat/overeat has been triggered, say to yourself, I made up my mind...

a) stick to my healthy eating plan
b) focus on relationships rather than food
c) honor my recent weight loss by maintaining healthy behaviors during the holiday season
d) ...whatever else you have made up your mind about!

6.) Focus on your own behavior. It's easy to get worked up about things other people are saying (perhaps they make negative comments about you or others). It's just as easy to get upset over other people's behavior (family members who may be arguing, or drinking too much, or vying for everyone's attention). Focus on your own behavior. After all, you have no responsibility for anyone else's! And you have full responsibility for you own behavior which, by the way, includes what, when, and how much you eat!

7.) Keep a progress piece in your pocket. A progress piece can be anything that reminds you of the progress you have made losing weight and/or improving your health. For example, if you are now able to bend over and tie your shoes after losing weight, carry a shoestring with you. If you recently flew on an airplane and no longer needed a seat belt extender, carry your boarding pass or a picture of a plane with you. When you're tempted to engage in unhealthy eating, look at your progress piece and give yourself credit for the hard work you've done and remind yourself of the commitment you made to continue your healthy behaviors.

8.) STOP. Imagine a large STOP sign in your mind that you can pull out whenever you need to before indulging in food (or behavior) that you will later regret.

9.) Set boundaries. If people give you a difficult time for eating healthy (Why can't you just have one bite? or You must have a piece of Aunt Sally's pie or you'll hurt her feelings.), set boundaries by saying, I've made up my mind to eat healthy, even on Thanksgiving. I don't expect you to understand, but I hope you will respect my decision.

10.) Plan your work and work your plan. Put on an index card (or make a note on your smart phone) any of the above suggestions or other things that work for you to help you get through difficult food and/or family situations so that you maintain your healthy lifestyle behaviors. Read your reminders any time you feel the need to and UTILIZE them!

Happy holidays to you and your families! Enjoy the relationships as they last so much longer than the food.

connie stapleton


Connie Stapleton, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with nearly two decades of experience in the field of bariatric medicine. Dr. Stapleton is the author of three books, is a national and international speaker, and appears as the bariatric psychologist on three national television programs.  Read more articles by Connie Stapleton!